DENVER -- Little more than two years ago, John Elway and other members of the Denver Broncos' football hierarchy went to Duke University to watch Peyton Manning throw. It was post spinal-fusion surgery, post-missed 2011 season.
Elway said they saw enough that day to take the plunge and make their best pitch to Manning, that there was "no Plan B." And now it is simply the league's greatest-ever free-agent signing, the game-changer of game-changers.
So when Manning threw his record 509th career touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in a 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, there was a rather startling thought that came with it. Manning has started all of 38 regular-season games for the Broncos. Thirty-eight.
And in those 38 games he has gone from a quarterback simply hoping to compete at the level he had always known in his pre-spinal fusion football life, to a quarterback who may have found another plane beyond it. A place he has carved out with a surgically repaired neck, a glove on his right hand and never-before-seen performance from a quarterback who has passed his 38th birthday.
Manning threw his 507th, 508th, 509th and 510th career touchdown passes as the Broncos moved to 5-1 flaunting plenty of playoff power on both sides of the ball. He opened the 2013 campaign with seven touchdown passes against the Baltimore Ravens, tying him for the NFL's single-game mark. And by the time the regular season was over Manning had thrown 55 touchdown passes, also an NFL record.
"You kind of just know you're part of something big," said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who has been Manning's teammate in both Indianapolis and Denver. "You know someday you're going to reflect on it, think about it, but in the moment he wants to win games and we want to win games. But someday, yes, it's going to be a good story."
Manning now has the touchdown trifecta all to himself -- game, season and career. All records, pushed into new ground in his 38 games with the Broncos. There's plenty more where that came from because Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has created the perfect storm of points, personnel and plan, all with Manning at the wheel, finishing off whatever play offensive coordinator Adam Gase can think up.
As Manning was poised to rewrite another chapter of the NFL record book, linebacker Von Miller felt the moment closing in.
"I wasn't really paying attention, I don't get to see him really, we're looking at our sheets, talking about what we're going to do on the next play, things like that," Miller said. "But we were looking at our stuff, and all of a sudden it was like a concert, all the phones were up all over the stadium, you could feel it. We knew it was going to happen. And you had to watch."
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said: "Oh yeah, you see all the phones come out like that, you knew we were going to throw the ball and that's one of those plays people will ask you about when you're old. To us that's Peyton Manning, he does something people want to remember every time he throws the ball."
Where it all goes from here is still an unknown of sorts, but the ride, for those lucky enough to be on it, will be one to remember.
"I can't put a number to it, but the way he is playing I feel like he can just go out and average three, four, five touchdowns a game," Thomas said. "Hopefully, because that's good, it's good for the offense, good for the team."
Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders added: "He's addicted to football and so is this offense. We know we've got a special group and we like to score points."