DENVER — Peyton Manning threw touchdowns in bunches Thursday night. First, a pair to tight end Julius Thomas. A quick strike to Andre Caldwell.
His new slot receiver Wes Welker got a couple, and Demaryius Thomas got two also, including an 80-yard catch-and-run to earn Manning yet another place in NFL quarterbacking history.
With that final touchdown in Denver's 49-27 win against the Baltimore Ravens, Manning became the sixth quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdowns in a single game.
"It's a huge achievement, and he was just so nonchalant about doing seven touchdowns like it was nothing," Welker said. "It was pretty cool to be a part of it."
John Elway never did it. In fact, Manning's boss never threw more than five touchdowns in one day during his Hall of Fame career. Tom Brady hasn't done it. Drew Brees has thrown six touchdowns, just like Manning had done twice before.
But seven? The Minnesota Vikings' Joe Kapp, a man just 11 years older than Manning's father Archie, was the last to do it, way back in 1969.
"Great Canadian quarterback out of Cal. Kicked the crap out of a guy on YouTube a couple of years ago, too," Manning said, proving his mettle as a connoisseur of quarterback history.
"So I don't know. You never know what's going to happen in a game. I felt like we had to keep scoring," Manning said.
And with those words, and with his touchdown after touchdown after touchdown performance, Manning revealed the answer to the Broncos' biggest preseason question. The best way for Denver to compensate for the loss of pass rusher Von Miller to a six-game suspension, and the loss of Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens, and the temporary absence of cornerback Champ Bailey because of a foot injury, is to just score, and then score some more.
As Manning and the Broncos offense sputtered in the first quarter, Denver's depleted defense was on the field for 50 snaps. By the final minutes of the second quarter, starters were keeling over with cramps and giving up chunks of yards to Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
The Broncos trailed 17-14 at halftime.
All Manning did then was kick start a dominant second half with an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter, the first of three touchdowns he would throw in the quarter as the Broncos built a 35-17 lead. Denver's defense could rest, and then tee off on Flacco, who was playing without right tackle Michael Oher and No. 2 receiver Jacoby Jones, both of whom left the game with injuries.
Suddenly the Broncos defense had shots at Flacco. Shaun Phillips, the longtime San Diego Charger who is being asked to fill Miller's pass-rushing void, had 1½ in the third quarter and another in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Nate Irving, who replaces Miller in the base defense, dropped Ray Rice for a big loss deep in Baltimore territory.
"We have a great offense with Peyton Manning and those guys. We have the privilege of playing defense for them," linebacker Danny Trevathan said.
Manning's historic night also answered the question of if there would be enough passes — and especially touchdowns — to satisfy a receiving corps that includes three receivers who each had more than 1,000 yards last season.
Yes and yes.
Seven different Broncos caught at least one pass from Manning on Thursday. Eric Decker had a disappointing night with only two catches on seven targets, with several key drops. Demaryius Thomas and Manning connected for five catches and 161 yards, but missed on five other attempts. Julius Thomas, in his first career start and first significant action in almost two years, caught his first touchdowns.
But it was the obvious connection with slot receiver Welker that should have Manning and the Broncos giddy. Welker, who signed with the Broncos as a free agent in March after a messy divorce from the New England Patriots, was Manning's primary target in the first half, the player Manning seemed to look for first for a third-down conversion. It didn't show that they had spent only months together, not years, or that Welker had the least amount of playing time in the preseason out of Manning's top receivers because of an ankle injury.
"We put a lot of time into trying to get some rapport," Manning said. "It's nice to be able to put that work to good use, and be able to get some touchdowns tonight."
Especially bunches of them.