ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Turns out reports of Peyton Manning’s demise were ridiculously premature.
Denver’s quarterback has been outstanding by every measure since throwing three interceptions in the first quarter at Atlanta a month ago. His trio of wobblers that night left critics questioning his stability, strength and stamina after spending all of last season on the sideline.
His latest Monday night performance went much better as he engineered the biggest comeback of his career in the Broncos’ 35-24 win at San Diego and tied Dan Marino for first place with his 47th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.
“These comeback victories are great,” Manning said, “but all it means is that you screwed up in the first half.”
For once, they were able to overcome their first-half foibles as Manning vaulted the Broncos (3-3) into a first-place tie with the Chargers atop the AFC West after a treacherous early-season schedule that lightens up considerably after their bye this week.
Even with four neck operations to match his four MVP trophies, the quarterback is on pace at age 36 to throw for more yards than he ever did in Indianapolis. If he keeps this up, he’ll also post the second-best marks of his career in attempts, completions, completion percentage, touchdowns and QB rating along with his second-fewest interceptions in a season.
At this rate, he would also set franchise records for yards passing, completions, completion percentage and TD passes.
He’s also the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and three TDs while completing at least 70 percent of his passes in three straight games.
Any more questions about his health or his hardiness?
“Everyone talked about him a couple weeks ago, but he’s been the least of my worries,” coach John Fox said. “I think he’s just going to get better and better.”
Consider this: Since matching the worst quarter, interception-wise, of his career against the Falcons in Week 2, Manning has thrown for 1,519 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in 195 passes — and that pickoff wasn’t even his fault. Matthew Willis didn’t recognize the overload on his side and failed to adjust his route accordingly Monday night, allowing Quentin Jammer to step up for an easy pick-six.
So, how much better can Manning possibly get?
“I think maybe the word is not so much ‘better,’ but ‘more comfortable,’ ” Fox said Tuesday. “Everybody’s adjusting, and they’re doing a good job, and they’re working hard to get there in a hurry. ... There’s always something you can improve on. You never think you’ve arrived, so we still have a lot of work to do.”
Like figuring out how to quit digging themselves into such big holes.
The Broncos have found themselves trailing by 20 points to the Falcons and Texans, and by 24 to the Patriots and Chargers.
“Well, if it was just one habit, it would be easy to break,” Fox said. “But we’ve kind of spread those habits around. And I’m not being flippant about it, we’ve got to get that cleaned up.”
On Monday night, “we found a new way to self-destruct,” Fox said, pointing to two special teams fumbles.
They also found new ways to come back, with three TD tosses from Manning and two defensive touchdowns as they erased the Chargers’ 24-0 halftime lead. That tied their biggest comeback in franchise history and left the AFC with just two winning teams — Baltimore and Houston — and both of them have their share of issues and injuries.
The Broncos’ losses have come to teams with a combined 14-4 record, but the remainder of their schedule has a composite 18-32 record and features just one winning team — the Ravens, who lost anchor Ray Lewis to a torn triceps Sunday.
For all their slow starts, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 79-6 in the fourth quarter, an indication they believe they’re never out of it with Manning on their side. For once, though, they have an actual comeback to celebrate and not just a moral victory to ponder.
They’re hoping it can catapult them to better days in the weeks and months ahead.
“It’s hard to have a lot of confidence and belief when nothing good happens,” Fox said. “It takes something like last night, something good happening, to kind of build on.”
The Broncos became the first team in nearly a quarter-century to win after falling behind 24-0. Denver’s defense forced Philip Rivers into a career-high six turnovers, including ones that Tony Carter and Chris Harris returned for touchdowns.
It was a 180-degree difference from the first half when the Broncos gave up 17 points off turnovers.
“Once again we had those self-inflicted wounds that put us in a hole,” Manning said. “But we have shown the ability to come back, and offense and defense really did it together there in the second half.”
Manning made adjustments after his three-interception first quarter at Atlanta on Sept. 17.
His teammates were slower to come around, collecting more fumbles, stumbles and tumbles — like Eric Decker tripping over his own feet on his way to what would have been an 85-yard TD Monday night just before Jammer’s 80-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Those are the things the Broncos know they’ll have to clean up to make a playoff run.
Manning, for one, would love to spend the fourth quarter watching Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller tee off on the other quarterback.
“We feel fortunate to be tied in our division with 3-3,” Manning said. “It’s going to be a competitive division later on down the stretch. There are some things we need to get better at. We need to use this week to improve and still find a way to play a 60-minute game.”