DENVER – The fans behind the south end zone who earlier had a great view of Peyton Manning's heart-skipping effort to tackle cornerback Brandon Flowers held up their index fingers as the final seconds ticked away on Denver's 38-3 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs.
"We're No. 1!"
It was an appropriate salute for two franchises whose fortunes couldn't have been more different this year.
With their biggest win ever over their AFC West rival, the Broncos (13-3) on Sunday secured the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the first time since John Elway was leading touchdown drives instead of cheers from his luxury suite.
The Chiefs (2-14), well, they own the top pick in the NFL draft now.
Manning guided Denver to its 11th straight win and made sure the only trip the Broncos will have to make on their road to a championship would be to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They'll open the playoffs at home the weekend of Jan. 12 against Baltimore, Cincinnati or Manning's old team, the Colts.
"I threw it OK today, I guess," said the ever-modest Manning, who completed 23 of 29 passes for 304 yards and a 144.8 passer rating.
He was within 41 yards of his career high when he donned a cap for the fourth quarter, yet another NFL record in his pocket — this marked his 73rd three-touchdown game, surpassing the record held by Brett Favre.
Before he threw any of them, though, Manning had to race downfield to try to deny Flowers a touchdown after the Chiefs cornerback scooped up rookie Ronnie Hillman's fumble at the Kansas City 24 in the first quarter.
He didn't get there, but he did slow him down enough to make Flowers cut back, and tight end Joel Dreessen dragged him down at the 12. After that, the Chiefs settled for a field goal and then watched the Broncos score the next 31 points.
"Me, I'm telling him to get out of the way," Champ Bailey said, echoing the sentiments of Broncos fans everywhere. "But the competitive nature of him is telling him to make the tackle. He stuck his neck out there."
His four-time surgically-repaired neck.
"I didn't get the tackle?" Manning deadpanned. "Dreessen hit him? That's perfect. . I knew if I at least made them cut back, I thought somebody would be in there. I thought I got a hand on him though. Maybe a half? Can I get a half? Can we check with that? I thought I got a piece of him."
He'll have to be satisfied with a season for the ages — at 36, coming off a year's forced sabbatical, Manning put up numbers that were better than the average of the four years he won MVP honors. He finished the season with 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and a 105.8 passer rating, all second-best of his 15-year career, putting him in line for a fifth MVP award.
"What he has done, to be coming off that type of rehab, that type of injury, at his position, in a new city, with a new team, I think it's unprecedented," coach John Fox said after his 100th win. "Historical would be the word I'd use."
Asked if he was a year ahead of where he thought he'd be in his comeback, Manning said, "I guess you could say that. I just didn't know. I still think there are still things we can improve on. I still think there still are things that just take time, that you just can't get done in a year."
Manning threw two touchdown passes to Eric Decker and one to Demaryius Thomas. Each had a one-handed TD grab that gave the Broncos some otherworldly highlights to go with their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
This was the second straight Sunday Manning used a grey-and-orange glove to prepare for the cold, playoff weather he could face at home the next two games.
"You know, for wearing it for the first time in my entire football career, I guess you could say it's been OK the past two weeks," Manning said.
Thanks to Houston's 28-16 loss to Indianapolis before the Broncos kicked off, Denver will be the top seed for the sixth time. The Broncos made the Super Bowl four of the previous five times.
Though the Chiefs gave the Broncos as tough a tussle as anyone during their 11-game winning streak — in a 17-9 loss last month — this wasn't expected to be much of a game, and it wasn't.
"It's been a gratifying regular season," Manning said. "I will admit that. It is certainly more than I expected."
On the other end of the spectrum are the Chiefs, who finished with 119 yards of offense a week after running for 352 yards in what might have been coach Romeo Crennel's farewell.
Injuries and ineffective play derailed a team predicted to finish near the top of the AFC West before the season. They also faced adversity off the field as well, when Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend before committing suicide at the team's practice facility on Dec. 1.
"I think the season finally caught up to these guys and I think it showed on the field," Crennel said.
NOTES: Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles ran for 53 yards to finish with 1,509. ... The Broncos swept six games in the division for the first time since 1998 — the last time they won the Super Bowl. ... Broncos S Rahim Moore got his first career sack and Miller had one to extend his team single season record to 18½. ... Hillman wasn't seen against after his fumble. Lance Ball replaced him as Knowshon Moreno's backup and led the team with 66 yards on 15 carries. ... Broncos QB Brock Osweiler threw his first NFL passes and finished 2 for 4 for 12 yards. "I'm not here just to hand off," he said.
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