ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Peyton Manning counts himself fortunate. Consider his team furious.
Manning acknowledged he was "probably a little bit lucky" that he banged the right thumbnail and not the knuckle of his throwing hand on New Orleans defensive end Martez Wilson's helmet Sunday night.
It's what happened a split-second later that has the Broncos miffed.
The crown of Wilson's helmet smacked into Manning's chin, a play the Broncos are expected to have the league look at this week.
Although no flag was thrown, it was similar to the illegal hit last month that cost Broncos linebacker Joe Mays a $50,000 fine and a one-game suspension for blasting Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
"It'll be something we look at and get the TV copy," Broncos coach John Fox said Monday. "We haven't done all that yet. And I'm not really able to comment on what we turn into the league and what we don't, but that's one we'll look at closely."
In all likelihood, so will the NFL and the result could be a hefty fine for Wilson, a backup on a team that's been dogged by turmoil all season after the NFL penalized the franchise for running a money-for-hits bounty pool.
Unlike Schaub, who lost a chunk of his left ear when his helmet went flying after Mays' hit, Manning's helmet stayed on after he was sandwiched by Wilson and strong safety Roman Harper on a blitz just as he released a 23-yard pass that Eric Decker caught along the left sideline in the first half of Denver's 34-14 win.
"I got nervous," said slot receiver Brandon Stokley, Manning's old pal from their days together in Indianapolis.
Manning picked himself up off the grass, shaking his thumb. He handed off on the next four snaps before throwing twice, then giving way to Matt Prater, who kicked a short field goal as the first half expired.
Manning, who had his third sackless outing in his last four games, answered any questions by going 4 for 4 to start the third quarter, moving the Broncos 93 yards and capping it with a 1-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas.
Fox gave this update on Manning's thumb Monday: "Oh, it's fine."
So, too, are the Broncos (4-3), who lead the AFC West as Manning grows more and more comfortable with his new teammates.
Navy and orange just no longer clash with Manning.
Add a defense that doesn't look so lost anymore under new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and the Broncos are on a roll, and against the Saints they finally found that 60-minute game they've been talking about.
The Broncos are serving notice that not only is the four-time MVP back, Peyton Manning Version 2.0 just might be every bit as good as the original.
Despite the throbbing thumb and the scars of four neck operations and a bitter divorce from the Colts serving as testament to all he's gone through to get here, Manning, 36, is in the midst of one of the best stretches any quarterback has ever had.
He's surpassed the 300-yard mark five straight times to match his personal best and set a franchise record. Ever since throwing a trio of interceptions at Atlanta in Week 2, Manning has been nothing less than sensational even though he dismisses the notion that he's as good right now as he ever was in Indy.
There's just no comparison to some of his best days with the Colts, he insists. But consider this: since matching the worst quarter of his career — interception-wise — Manning has thrown for 1,827 yards with 15 touchdowns and just one interception in 225 throws, and that one pickoff was his receiver's fault for not adjusting his route.
"I think it's a reflection of our whole offense starting to jell," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "And this is a good time. The last few weeks have been an improvement and if we can keep that improvement going, we'll be pretty tough to reckon with."
Decker, who caught two TD passes Sunday night, said, "We've shown flashes, we've had some bumps along the way but we're starting to be more consistent. It's good when you got the right guys in the right places."
While Manning was picking apart the Saints secondary, Willis McGahee and rookie Ronnie Hillman were piling up 208 yards on the ground and tight end Virgil Green was showing some speed and promise with three catches for 44 yards.
Wesley Woodyard led a swarming defense that held Drew Brees in check and limited the Saints to a single third-down conversion.
"We'll never use excuses, but it's a new scheme what Jack Del Rio brought in here," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "So, it's guys just becoming more familiar with the scheme and their responsibilities and playing fast. ... We're getting better every week."
Special teams are, too. Trindon Holliday hit his stride with 43 yards on four punt returns against New Orleans.
"I'm sure the coaches will find some mistakes on the film," Manning said, "but it's what we're looking for offensively, defensively, and special teams: kind of feeding off one another."
Notes: Fox said he wasn't sure if CB Tracy Porter has been medically cleared to return to practice. Porter has missed the last two games after experiencing symptoms similar to what he had before suffering a seizure in August.
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