DENVER — Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos waited eight long months, then another 33 minutes, to get the season started.
A record-tying seven touchdown passes — something no one had done in 44 years — made it worth the while.
Connecting with his most prized addition, Wes Welker, and former college basketball player Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas for two TDs each, Manning directed Denver to a 49-27 victory over Super Bowl champion Baltimore on Thursday night in the NFL opener, a much-anticipated rematch against the team that ended the Broncos’ playoff run in January.
“Peyton had an amazing night,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “Peyton’s had a lot of amazing nights.”
Not like this, though.
Manning is the sixth QB in NFL history to throw seven TD passes in a game and the first since Joe Kapp did it for Minnesota against Baltimore on Sept. 28, 1969.
The others read like a Who’s Who of passers who came along before the NFL became so pass-happy: Sid Luckman, Adrian Burk, George Blanda, Y.A. Tittle.
Manning was 27 of 42 for 462 yards with no interceptions for an off-the-charts quarterback rating of 141.1.
All part of a thorough thrashing of the team that put a harsh end to what had looked like a Super Bowl-bound 2012 in Denver. The rematch came nearly eight months after Baltimore beat Denver 38-35 in double overtime on an icy January night in the same stadium.
The hero on that night was Jacoby Jones, who caught a 70-yard TD pass over Rahim Moore with 31 seconds left to tie it in regulation. His night was cut short when he went back to field a punt and teammate Brynden Trawick plowed into him at the Baltimore 15. Jones left with a sprained right knee and didn’t return.
The Broncos waited all offseason for the rematch, then for 33 minutes more when a lightning storm in the area delayed the start.
When they took the field, it was clear how much had changed.
Pass rusher Elvis Dumervil moved from Denver to Baltimore as part of a bizarre, fax-infused contract squabble. Receiver Brandon Stokley also switched sides. The Broncos lost their best defender, Von Miller, to a drug suspension while Baltimore had to rebuild its ‘D’ after losing emotional leaders Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
The Ravens suffered another loss of sorts when they were forced to play the season’s traditional opener on the road because of a conflict with the Orioles in Baltimore. The NFL hung a Flacco banner above Denver’s stadium, but he hardly felt at home.
Armed with a new six-year, $120.6 million contract, he matched the Broncos score for score in the first half but had to play catch-up after falling behind 35-17 early in the third quarter. His final numbers: 34 of 62 for 362 yards with two TDs and two interceptions.
It was such a runaway, the Broncos were throwing away touchdowns by the end. Linebacker Danny Trevathan fumbled his pick-6 just shy of the goal line, pulling a Leon Lett imitation by celebrating too soon and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback instead of a touchdown.
Denver was ahead 42-17 at that point.
Wearing an orange-and-gray glove like the one he wore on that icy January night the last time these teams met, Manning took a while to get warmed up against a Baltimore defense that had to replace seven Super Bowl starters.
He ditched the glove once the rains stopped — and then he was unstoppable.
Manning’s seventh TD pass covered only a few yards in the air but Demaryius Thomas, a former first-round pick, hauled in the pass in the left flat and turned on the jets, racing past several gassed defenders for a 78-yard play that capped Denver’s big night.
“Didn’t surprise me a bit,” said Stokley, who played with Manning in Denver and Indianapolis. “He’s capable of this kind of night.”
Demaryius Thomas finished with five receptions for 161 yards, Julius Thomas had five catches for 110 yards and Welker led the way with nine grabs for 67 yards.
Welker averaged 112 catches over the last six seasons in New England, where he was Tom Brady’s favorite receiver. He’s the first receiver to catch TD passes from both Brady and Manning.
He has said he can’t compare the two pre-eminent QBs, saying that’s like choosing between Michaelangelo and Picasso.
This night was certainly a masterpiece for Manning.