- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- Just another fourth-quarter comeback for the Denver Broncos.
That Tim Tebow is something else. Wait, scratch that. We've moved beyond Tebow.
Much different quarterback, same late heroics for Denver. But I’m sure the Broncos feel much more comfortable winning games this way as they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in front of a raucous home crowd Sunday night.
Unlike the polarizing Tebow, Peyton Manning was solid all game long in his Broncos debut.
The doubters questioned Denver for giving Manning a five-year, $96 million deal (Denver has protections after this season if need be). The skeptics wondered if Manning could ever be effective again. But in a stirring performance that has to soothe Denver and cause worry around the NFL, the biggest question of the 2012 offseason has been answered. Can Manning be an effective NFL quarterback again? Folks, he is back.
In his first game since the 2010 playoffs, Manning led Denver to a fourth-quarter win. He was typical Manning: efficient, accurate and clutch. Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and had a whopping quarterback rating of 129.2. He threw two touchdowns passes, and he became the third quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400 touchdowns -- and the fastest of the three to reach that mark.
Really, this guy hasn’t played in 19 months, and he is coming off four neck surgeries? The Colts thought he was done?
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was succinct, but summed it up best Sunday night: “He’s Peyton."
While it is just one game, it is vital that Manning showed he is back to form. Sure, he didn’t heave the ball deep much, but he didn’t have to. That’s not his game anyway. Manning is about being in a rhythm, and he was on Sunday night.
Manning was stoic as usual after the game.
“I’m still feeling my way out; I still have some limitations,” Manning said. “I think this team is still forming its identity ... when you get a win in that process, that’s a nice thing.”
We expect Manning to say such things. He avoids hyperbole. But the truth is, the real question now is how far can he take the Broncos?
After dealing with the electric, but uneven days of Tebow, Denver has itself the elite NFL quarterback that John Elway has craved since he took over the team less than two years ago.
Unlike last season when Denver was looking to Tebow to turn on his magic, the Broncos saw Manning provide steady play all game long.
After taking just one snap while Pittsburgh dominated possession for nearly a quarter spanning the second and third quarters, Manning connected with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for a 71-yard touchdown pass to give Denver a 14-13 lead with 5:29 remaining in the third.
Pittsburgh retook the lead, but Manning put Denver ahead for good with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Tamme with 9:23 to go. He led Denver on touchdown drives of 12 and 10 plays Sunday night.
“Peyton has a history of comebacks,” Tamme said. “It felt good to start this way.”
Pittsburgh challenged Manning’s health and his potentially rusty play. The Steelers sent five or more pass rushers on 14 of his 29 drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Manning was sacked twice, but he made Pittsburgh pay for blitzing him. He was 9-of-11 passing for 152 yards, and he tossed both of his touchdowns in those situations.
Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in his prime early last decade, said he saw the same quarterback he saw seven years ago. Manning was clicking in the second half as he completed 9 of 12 pass attempts for 155 yards.
“Peyton is pretty special when he gets in a rhythm,” Stokley said. “He had them on their heels there in the second half.”
In addition to Manning showing he is still at the top of his game, Denver has to be excited about the overall product it showed Pittsburgh. There is no doubt, Manning was the star Sunday night, but Denver was excellent in every phase of the game. That has to be pleasing for Manning, who often had to overcome a lack of stellar talent in his 14 years in Indianapolis.
Denver ran for 94 yards (including some big second-half carries), and it played stout defense. Denver sacked Roethlisberger five times (2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller had two sacks) and held Pittsburgh to 75 yards rushing on 26 attempts.
Manning picked Denver because he thought the Broncos could win now. Sunday night, he showed he can be a major reason why.