David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – Peyton Manning got his groove back even with a backup center snapping him the ball. Just in time for another showdown with Tom Brady, too.
Dogged by interceptions one week and incompletions the next, Manning simply was incredible Sunday in leading the Denver Broncos to their biggest blowout of the Oakland Raiders in nearly a half-century.
Manning looked as comfortable as he’s been in blue and orange yet.
He had his first sackless game in Denver and his 65th 300-yard passing performance of his career, which extended the NFL record he set a week earlier.
He didn’t miss a beat – and only three throws – after center J.D. Walton broke his left ankle just before halftime and was replaced by recently signed veteran Dan Koppen.
“The key that I’ve said all along is just trying to keep making progress somehow,” Manning said. “That doesn’t always show on the scoreboard – you’d like to win every game as you’re feeling your way and learning about your team and learning about yourself a little bit.
“So, there’s still a lot of that going on, for me out there as the quarterback, and for our team, sort of figuring things out.”
Manning had plenty of help in finding a comfort zone Sunday.
“It’s like anything: the more you do it, the better you get,” coach John Fox said. “And I’ve seen steady improvement, in not just him but in how he operates with all his teammates. When we talk about passing the football, there’s a lot of moving parts ... and they all go hand in hand. You can spring leaks in a lot of different areas.”
Or, as was the case against the Raiders, in none at all.
With a better pocket of protection, Manning picked and poked his way downfield on seven scoring drives as he enjoyed his biggest margin of victory since leading Indianapolis to a 42-6 romp against the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 25, 2009.
Manning was upright most of the afternoon after getting sacked eight times through three weeks – the most in his NFL career.
In 38 drop-backs, he was hit just twice and knocked down one time, by cornerback Phillip Adams on a third-quarter blitz. He was tapped two other times after releasing the ball, and he initiated contact himself one time when he blocked a defensive back after handing off for an end-around.
Other than that, the most Manning got touched was during the postgame hugs and handshakes.
It may have looked easy, but Manning had to make a major adjustment just before halftime when Raiders defensive end Jack Crawford crashed into Walton’s legs from behind as he was making the tackle on running back Lance Ball.
In came Koppen, who spent his first nine seasons in New England but missed most of last year with an injury similar to Walton’s. He signed with Denver three weeks ago after the Patriots cut him.
“We felt really good about the addition because he brings top-notch experience at that position,” Fox said.
Koppen now has snapped for the two greatest quarterbacks of his generation, and on Sunday he’ll be on the other side of the showdown.
“I’m sure it’s going to be fun,” Koppen said. “A little bit different view, but it’s still just football.”
After falling behind by 20 points in each of his previous two games, Manning understandably was excited about his best performance yet as a Bronco. Yet, he kept things in perspective. One fine afternoon wasn’t about to make him think everything was great.
“We still have some things to improve on, but any time you can be working on things and get a win at the same time, that sure is nice,” Manning said.
Next week the Broncos travel to Gillette Stadium for the 12th installment of Manning-Brady. Manning has won four of the last six matchups but Brady has won seven times overall.
Manning is in Denver because of the Broncos’ 45-10 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots in the playoffs, which led Fox and John Elway to overhaul the roster, starting with Manning on offense and Jack Del Rio, Tracy Porter and Mike Adams on defense.
They feel they’re better prepared now to keep up with the league’s aerial fireworks show.
“But time will tell,” Fox said. “It’s going to be a very tough game at their place. ... They’ve got a lot of firepower, and they’ve got a first-ballot Hall of Famer under center, as well.”
The Broncos put Walton on injured reserve Monday when linebacker Joe Mays returned from his one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub.
Mays, who also was fined $50,000 but got to keep his $200,000-plus game check, said he won’t change his style: “I may try to be, I guess, safe a little bit. But as far as me holding back the way I play? No. Hard to the whistle.”