ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It was early November in Cincinnati. The Broncos quarterback dropped back to pass, found a receiver open for a 30-yard gain.
Four plays later, Denver scored the winning touchdown and John Elway, in his 16th and final season, had the 39th game-winning drive of the 40 he would engineer in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Fast forward to 2012: Early November. At Cincinnati. Elway is the general manager and the quarterback he brought to Denver, 15-year veteran Peyton Manning, directs a five-play, 80-yard drive to give the Broncos the lead in the fourth quarter. It was his 48th game-winning drive. Manning now holds the NFL record in a category Elway once defined.
"I think he thrives on it," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I think most competitors do. They want the ball in their hands."
He could have been speaking about Elway. In this case, he was speaking about Manning.
The quarterback's latest escape act, which included four completions, including one of his three scoring passes against the Bengals, was more efficient than dramatic, more just another touchdown drive than, say, The Drive.
Yet for all the gaudy numbers Manning is putting up this season — 2,404 yards, 20 touchdowns, the 108.6 passer rating — it's the three fourth-quarter game-winning drives, against Pittsburgh, San Diego and Cincinnati, that show what he's really all about.
"I think all football players, when the fourth quarter comes around, that's when the pressure's on, that's when you want to rely on your fundamentals and techniques," Manning said. "I think we can draw on this type of game."
Though any NFL quarterback will take what Manning got Sunday — a win — it will not go down as one of his best statistical performances, mainly because of the two interceptions he threw, both of which contributed to a 14-point lead turning into a three-point deficit early in the fourth quarter.
There was no sense of panic, said tight end Jacob Tamme, who played for three years with Manning in Indianapolis.
"He takes responsibility when he does something he feels wasn't good enough and we all take responsibility when we do something we feel wasn't good enough," Tamme said. "That's how we operate as an offense. It was just kind of a sense of, let's go out there and do our job a little bit better and we'll win."
They did. Eight minutes later, with the help of a Champ Bailey interception, Manning led another touchdown drive to make it 31-20. The Bengals kicked a field goal but didn't recover the ensuing onside kick.
"If you run into an adverse situation, it's no reason to get down," Bailey said. "You just keep playing ball. Keep going out and doing your job because you know you're going to have a chance. You see other players doing that on this team. There are a lot of leaders on this team."
Top on the list: Manning.
After the slow start so many predicted for him, coming onto a new team and after missing a year while his surgically repaired neck healed, he is playing as well as he ever has.
The Broncos are on a three-game winning streak. They've reached the midpoint of the season leading the AFC West at 5-3. Manning leads the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), average gain per attempt (8.23) and with that passer rating of more than 108. That last stat, loosely translated, means he's playing quarterback better than anyone in the NFL right now.
"In his case, every time he goes out there, he's got a chance to do something special," Fox said.
He's making memories in the fourth quarter — a time that used to belong to Elway in this city.
It was against the Colts in 1983 that Elway made his first comeback. From 19-0 down to a 21-19 win, with all the touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter.
After another particularly impressive comeback — two touchdowns over the last two minutes to beat the Chiefs 20-19 in 1992 — Elway said he never gave up, no matter how dire the situation: "No. When I think we've lost is when the game is over," he said.
With Manning at the helm, the impossible seems possible again in Denver. A 24-point deficit in San Diego turns into a 35-24 win that goes down as the first time a team has won by double digits after trailing by so much. A blown lead in Cincinnati turns into a 31-23 win that, somehow, feels routine.
Of course, nobody goes into a game hoping to need a comeback. But when things play out this way, Manning said, it's not such a bad thing.
"The more you can go through it as a unit, the more you can draw on it later in the season," he said. "Anytime you can win going through those scenarios, that's a plus."
NOTES: Fox said there was no update on OL Chris Kuper, who left the game with an injured left ankle. "No fracture involved," Fox said. "There'll be some rehab." ... Tamme, who left the game briefly with an injury, said he tweaked a nerve in his elbow when he hit it on the turf and it felt OK on Monday. ... The Broncos gave no update on CB Tracy Porter, who missed his third straight game because of problems related to a seizure over the summer. ... The Broncos lost two turnovers and picked up only one against Cincinnati, falling to minus-4 for the season, 23rd in the league.
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