After all the hype, after all the hoopla, after all the anticipation, Peyton Manning finally took the field for the Denver Broncos last night in a game that counted -- against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose loss to the Tim Tebow-led squad in last year's playoffs provided plenty of incentive. And Manning looked old -- as in his old self -- as he put smiles on the faces of Broncos fans in the same way he used to imprint grimaces.
Not that the 31-19 victory was one glorious benediction after another. The offense took a while to get untracked, moving in fits and starts during its few opportunities while the Steelers methodically munched clock -- a concern moving forward. True, the D-Town defense didn't give up the sort of big running plays that have been a regular feature of Broncos games for several years now. But neither did the defenders prove capable of getting the Steelers off the field on third down.
Over and over again, Ben Roethlisberger and company would get a handful of yards on first and second, usually via three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-style pounding. But on third, the front line either gave Roethlisberger too much time or allowed him to escape and pick up just enough to move the chains. The result was death by a thousand cuts, particularly during the third quarter, when the time of possession was so massively in the Steelers' favor that Manning might have been better off taking a nap than watching the frustrating display.
And yet Peyton managed to add to Denver's single first-half TD with a big strike to Demaryius Thomas during the Steelers' seemingly endless marches, and put up another touchdown in the fourth, mostly thanks to a no-huddle offense that made the Steelers look like his puppets. This was particularly true late in the contest on a play inside the five, when Manning hurried his boys to the line of scrimmage only to delay the snap while surefire Steelers Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu ran back and forth, trying to figure out what he the hell he should do.
How many times have we watched Manning do the same thing to Broncos defenders? And while, on this occasion, the result wasn't a touchdown -- Eric Decker couldn't make the grab after a time out -- it was an indication that Manning was as in-control of the situation as ever. This time, though, the results were hilarious for Broncos boosters, not agonizing.
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With the minutes ticking away and the Steelers down by six, Big Ben had to throw, and the one-dimensionality that resulted finally gave the defense the opportunity to rush the passer with the sort of abandon that produced results -- including a game-salting pick-six by Tracy Porter and a passel of sacks (and one Tebow!) by Von Miller, who's already started building on the superstar-in-the-making status that greeted his rookie season.
Yes, it was exhilarating, particularly given that the Steelers remain an elite team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. And if it may be premature to say the same about the Broncos, go ahead and do so. As long as Peyton Manning stays healthy -- the big "if" for this team -- Denver is capable of great things of the sort we enjoyed last night.
More from our Sports archive: "Video: Peyton Manning head slam, lack of rust in 49ers loss."