Peyton Manning slapped his hands together five, six, seven times and barked out the signals. A few seconds later, Wes Welker was all alone, cradling the quarterback’s latest touchdown pass.
All part of another impeccably crafted victory for Manning and the Denver Broncos, who rolled over the Oakland Raiders 37-21 on Monday night.
Denver’s 127 points lead the league and are 31 more than second-placed Green Bay.
It was Denver’s 14th straight regular-season win, tying the franchise record set in 1998 when the Broncos won their second Super Bowl.
Manning went 32 for 37 for 374 yards and put his name in the record books a few more times while outwitting the overmatched Raiders (1-2).
“You see flashes of good things,” Manning said. “When we’re executing and not making mistakes, we can go the distance. We can go 80 yards, take advantage of a short field.”
Manning’s 12 touchdown passes are one more than Tom Brady’s old record for the first three games, set in 2011. Manning still has yet to throw an interception, which matches a record held by Michael Vick, who also threw 12 touchdowns before his first pick in 2010.
“We get to play with one of the greatest quarterbacks and football players to ever play the game,” said tight end Julius Thomas, who caught one of the touchdowns.
“He’s great. There’s no other way to cut it up or slice it,” Thomas said.
As much as the numbers, it was Manning’s deciphering of the Oakland defense that made jaws drop.
His first touchdown, a two-yard pass to Eric Decker (eight catches, 133 yards), came after a subtle play-action fake that froze the defense and left Decker uncovered in the back of the end zone.
Manning’s targets for the next two touchdowns — Welker and Thomas — did not have defenders within three steps of them when they caught the passes. Wide open. A sure sign that Manning had diagnosed the defense he was looking at well before the snap and knew exactly where he wanted to go with the ball.
“You see what he can do. I don’t even know too many people who can do that in Madden,” running back Ronnie Hillman said, referring to the popular video game.
“It’s pretty cool to have a quarterback like that,” he said.
OK, so the evening was not perfect. There were the five incompletions, though two of them were flat-out drops and another two hit receivers in the hands, but they would have been difficult catches.
The Broncos (3-0) settled for three field goals and had to punt once. Rookie Montee Ball lost another fumble. Denver came a field goal short of reaching 40 points for the third straight game.
Manning’s prediction that Chris Clark would be a seamless replacement for injured Ryan Clady as his blindside protector did not exactly pan out. Lamarr Houston beat Denver’s new starting left tackle badly in the third quarter for a sack and strip that halted a drive that had reached the Raiders 13, but Denver were ahead 30-7 at that point.
Really, any complaints about Denver’s offense seem like quibbling given what’s gone on so far this season. The record for touchdown passes in a season is 50, set by Brady in 2007. If he keeps up this pace, Manning will throw 64.
“Any inch of mistake that he sees, he’s going to put the ball there and find that hole,” Raiders cornerback Mike Jenkins said.
As for Denver’s biggest rivals, the Raiders — since Manning arrived, the Broncos have outscored them 100-40 in three runaway wins.
The Raiders offense made one big play before the game got out of hand. Terrelle Pryor (19 for 28 for 281 yards), who left the game late with a concussion, hit Denarius Moore in the middle of the field, and Broncos defensive backs Duke Ihenacho and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie whiffed on the tackle.
Moore went 73 yards to cut Oakland’s deficit to 17-7 in the second quarter.
All of which simply gave Manning the ball back more quickly. On the first play of the next drive, he hit Decker, who spun away from his defender for a 61-yard gain. Three plays later, the Broncos were up 17 again after Manning found Thomas on an out route for a 13-yard score.
The Broncos defense, now halfway through Von Miller’s suspension and playing again without injured Champ Bailey (foot), allowed only nine yards on the ground to Darren McFadden, who came into the game leading the league with 223 yards from scrimmage.
However, McFadden did throw a touchdown — a 16-yard connection to Marcel Reece on a halfback option — and get a late rushing score.