DENVER – So it's absurd to think Peyton Manning can keep this up, a pace to throw for 112 touchdowns and 7,392 yards this season.
Defenses sure aren't.
Surrounded by the best targets he's ever had, operating a turbocharged assault at altitude with a right arm that's stronger and a body that's much less of a question mark, Manning just might put up record numbers like he did in his remarkable 2004 season in Indianapolis.
That year, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley all topped 1,000 yards receiving. Manning established NFL records with 49 touchdown throws and a 121.1 passer rating, marks since surpassed by Tom Brady (50) and Aaron Rodgers (122.5).
His tight ends then, Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark, combined for 11 TD catches.
Now, his most compelling target is former college hoopster Julius Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who presents even more matchup problems for all those secondaries scarred by Manning's pinpoint passes to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker.
"I'm truly jealous of the weapons that Peyton gets to throw to," said his boss, John Elway.
Manning doesn't have the bruising running back Elway had in Terrell Davis while winning back-to-back Super Bowls in Denver in the late 1990s. But the game nowadays is played more through the air, and between Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos believe their backfield will pick up the blitz — and first downs rushing — just fine.
Although his center has but one NFL start, his offensive linemen tip the scales at an average of 319 pounds, a mountain of muscle up front Elway could only dream of.
After Manning threw for 462 yards last week, Elway had one thing to say to: "Wow!"
"We got off to a slow start and were down at halftime," Elway said on a team podcast. "Going into that second half, we really got hot. It was fun and exciting to see that second half because that's what I thought we could do offensively, and to be able to do that against the defending world champions was even better."
Manning was the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after showing he was every bit as good as before. A series of neck injuries and surgeries that weakened a nerve in his right biceps had sidelined him for 2011.
Elway notices the ball coming off the 37-year-old Manning's hand better. It was also quickly evident that Manning's throws were sharper and harder.
"The ball stings my hands more," Demaryius Thomas said.
"I feel like I have perfect coverage and I'm breaking on the ball and I'm like, 'I know this is a pick.' But, no," cornerback Chris Harris said. "If there were other quarterbacks, I'm easily picking them off, but Peyton is just so accurate and his arm strength has gotten so much better. He was just being able to fit those balls into tight coverage."
Manning's masterpiece opener doesn't necessarily portend a transcendent season, said Welker, who was a major part of Brady's big year in 2007 in New England.
"I mean, we're talking about Week 1," Welker said. "There's no telling at this point. It's one week. We had a good game. You've got to do it every single week, so it's still super early and we've got a long ways to go."
Don't put it past Manning, though. He has his health back to go with an unparalleled work ethic and almost photographic memory.
"He's the general," Giants cornerback Aaron Ross said as he prepared to face Manning this weekend. "He's seen hundreds of defenses, all the defenses that you are going to throw at him. He has prepared for everything."
Manning and the Broncos are more concerned about wins than stats, but they also realize they're built to light up scoreboards.
"Is he capable? He's had some miraculous years," coach John Fox said. "Last year was miraculous for what he overcame. So, I mean, would it shock me? No. But I'm not thinking about it."
Manning and his teammates didn't even realize he had thrown for seven touchdowns until informed afterward that he now shares the NFL record with passers who played in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
"It didn't seem like that many," Welker said. "You're just sitting there like, 'That was seven?' Because he goes nonchalantly about it."
Manning always comes off the field eager to dissect the defense and evaluate the execution of the drive, whether it ended in a punt or an extra point.
"He handles touchdowns just like three-and-outs on the sideline," receiver Andre Caldwell said. "That's why I think this can be one of his best seasons."
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