There were times when the arm looked noticeably weaker. Footballs fluttered. Some skipped the dirt like a rock on a pond. Then came greatness. Then came something we've only seen a handful of times before. Peyton Manning outdid Peyton Manning, which seems impossible, but we saw it with our own damn eyes.
Seven touchdowns in one game. Seven. The last guy to do that was Joe Kapp in 1969. That year should sound familiar. It was the year man first landed on the moon. Buzz Aldrin wears Peyton Manning pajamas.
Manning also joins Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks to throw seven scores in a game without an interception. That kind of precision is a rarity in any sport, at any time in history.
What Manning does has become so routine, so...well, Manning, that midway through the third quarter of Denver's 49-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens Thursday night, he had five touchdown passes. And he made it look pedestrian.
He wasn't playing the Jaguars. He was playing a still-formidable defending Super Bowl champion team and finished 27-of-42 for 462 yards and a 141.1. QB rating.
This is what the great ones do. They make playing the position look so simple—like turning on the dishwasher, when playing quarterback is more like piloting a Mars rover. Joe Montana did this. Johnny Unitas did it. Dan Marino, Tom Brady and Troy Aikman, too. There are five or six guys who made playing NFL quarterback look simple despite the eternal complexities and intricacies of the position.
There are a number of reasons why the Broncos beat the Ravens on Thursday, and that list starts with the usual suspect.
Something looks different about Manning's throwing arm this season. Maybe it's the same strength, or maybe it's weaker. It looks the latter (it's definitely not stronger), and still because of guile, uncanny throwing accuracy and filthy ruthlessness (that's meant as a compliment), he looks—gulp—better than ever.
When I tweeted during the game that Manning's arm looked weaker, it led to a torrent of smart-ass responses, mostly from homer Denver media. I didn't say it was less accurate—I said "weaker." Manning is so good he can compensate for almost anything.
As the Ravens tired, and those gaps between Baltimore's secondary and Denver's receivers grew from inches to feet, Manning exploited them with his accuracy. Not strength. Not a cannon. Accuracy.
The statistics are stunning. After Manning threw his sixth touchdown pass, it was the third time he'd thrown six in a game during his career. And in those three games, he had 18 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Then he threw a seventh, becoming only the sixth in NFL history to do that.
The frightening aspect of this is Manning has more weapons than ever before. He won't throw for seven scores every week, but with his receiving targets and what looks like an even more accurate arm, he could nuke the record books.
Wes Welker plays directly into his Matrix-y ability to put the football in any short-to-medium spot on the field where the receiver barely has to move his head or hands to catch the football.
The Ravens had no answers to this combination. Welker caught two touchdown passes.
Across that offense, just as he had last season with the Broncos, Manning made every receiver better. Yeah, that's what the greats do.
Welker is just one of many Manning targets. It's possible a number of Manning's weapons could have career years because of him. Think about this: The Ravens gave up the most points in franchise history.
It's just one game. You don't want to go crazy...
Hold on. Yes, we can go crazy. Manning looks that good.
It's not insane to think that this season could be the best year Manning has ever had. That's not hyperbole. Did you see him play? Yes, it could happen. The best year of his career. The best year a quarterback has ever had. It's possible. That's how good he was.
Please don't start with the "it's only one game" stuff. This wasn't an ordinary game, because Peyton Manning is no ordinary quarterback.