DENVER — 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 Monday night. Denver’s 127 points lead the league and are 31 more than second-place Green Bay.
Manning went 32 for 37 for 374 yards and set a few more records 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.
As much as the numbers, it was Manning’s deciphering of the Oakland defense that made jaws drop in this one.
His first touchdown, a 2-yard pass to Eric Decker, came after a subtle play action fake that froze the defense and left Decker wide open in the back of the end zone.
Manning’s targets for the next two touchdowns — Welker and Julius Thomas — didn’t have defenders within three steps of them. 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.
“All of them did a good job competing,” Manning said of his receivers. “We knew we were in a challenge, because Oakland has good cover corners. Mix up their coverage well. Guys did a good job getting open versus man, and finding holes in the zones. All of them did a good job running with the ball after the catch.”
OK, so the evening wasn’t perfect. There were the five incompletions, though two of them were flat-out drops and another two hit receivers in the hands, but would have been difficult catches. The Broncos 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.
And Manning’s prediction that Chris Clark would be a seamless replacement for injured Ryan Clady as his blindside protector didn’t 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 was ahead 30-7 at that point.
“Those are things we have to iron out,” Manning said.
And, 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.
As for Denver’s biggest rival, 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, when Terrelle Pryor (19 for 28 for 281 yards) 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, allowed only 9 yards on the ground to Darren McFadden, who came into the game leading the league with 223 yards from scrimmage. McFadden did, however, throw a touchdown — a 16-yard connection to Marcel Reece on a halfback option — and get a late score on the ground.