ARLINGTON, Texas — For all but one player with a locker at Dove Valley, for John Fox and his coaching staff, for John Elway and his front office, here's hoping they don't suffer from insecurity.
This is not so much about the Broncos. This is about Peyton Manning. It was Manning's quarterback brilliance that beat the Dallas Cowboys 51-48 in a Texas-style shootout Sunday before a crowd of — get this — 92,758 at the dazzling sports castle that is AT&T Stadium.
And nothing but Manning.
"Hey, I get it," said Broncos slot man Wes Welker, who also was part of Tom Brady's record-setting offenses in New England. "He's a great player. You can't take anything away from him. You don't mind talking about the quarterback when they play like that."
Denver's defense provided little challenge to the twirling dervish, pinpoint passer that was Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. So bad were the Broncos on defense, Manning was behind two touchdowns before he got a chance to finish his first drive.
The Broncos were so bad early, they had but one chance to avoid their first loss: Manning. So what else is new?
From 14 points down, Manning on his next five possessions threw four touchdown passes and ran in for another score on a perfectly executed hidden-ball keeper to put the Broncos up by 15 points a few minutes into the third quarter. In a wild, back-and-forth second half, Matt Prater's 28-yard field goal provided the winning points as the clock ran out. Linebacker Danny Trevathan set up the winning score with an interception at the Cowboys' 24.
Leading up to the game, Cowboys veteran linebacker Ernie Sims was quoted as saying he was sick of hearing about Manning.
Hey, Ernie: Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning.
"I think I might have caught a glimpse of that on ESPN or something, but that wasn't anything we used for motivation or anything," said Broncos tight end Julius Thomas. "You're going to hear about Peyton when he's playing like that. What did he throw, four again today? Well, guess what. He'll be back on the news again."
The Broncos had better get used to hearing how Manning is carrying them. Sure, somebody has to block for him and catch his passes. And Manning can't play defense, even if he did show he can run around left end.
But the Broncos are 5-0 primarily because Manning started his season with 20 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He threw his first interception of the season with seconds left in the third quarter.
But after Romo rallied the Cowboys to a 48-41 lead midway through the fourth quarter with an athletic, even balletic performance, Manning calmly continued his carving of the Dallas defense, going 5-for-5 for 77 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Knowshon Moreno to make it 48-48.
"It's hard to enjoy a touchdown drive when their offense is hot and you really are going to have to go out there and do it again," Manning said. "We talked about it last night, being able to handle being in a storm."
There was 2:39 left, tie game, Dallas ball. And finally, Romo reverted back to the Romo that so many here love to hate. He cracked. Deep in his own territory on second-and-long, Romo threw into a double coverage. Trevathan — who was carted off the field during practice Wednesday with little more than a banged-up knee, as it turned out — made a diving interception at the Cowboys' 24.
"I baited him," Trevathan said. "Romo threw it and I felt like, man, hopefully I don't drop the ball when I get in the end zone this time. I fell to the ground and said, 'Forget it.' "
Manning threw a 13-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas, who made a terrific catch, to set up a first down at the Dallas 11 with less than two minutes remaining.
From there, the Broncos did just enough to play keep-away from Romo and maneuver to give Prater a short field as time expired. Prater had pelted field goals of 48 and 50 yards, so the 28-yard buzzer-beater was no problem.
Manning and Romo combined for 920 yards passing, nine touchdown passes and 99 points.
Von Miller was supposed to be the Broncos' second-best player. Remember him? He has been suspended from the first five games, with one more to go, and the Broncos are 5-0. Champ Bailey seems certain to have his bust bronzed in Canton someday. The Broncos are 5-0 without him. Left tackle is supposedly the second-most-important position on offense. The Broncos had a great left tackle in Ryan Clady until he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Game 2. The Broncos are 3-0, averaging 46.7 points, without him.
A skeptic might say Manning has the best receiving group in the NFL to aid his quarterback play. Those same skeptics would agree Demaryius Thomas and Welker are the two best in Manning's pass-catching group. Thomas and Welker did not have a catch in the first half Sunday.
Manning instead threw two touchdown passes to tight end Julius Thomas, whom the Cowboys couldn't cover if they were given a long lasso, and one to Eric Decker, whose fumble after making a first-down catch on the first possession is the reason the Broncos scored on only five of their first six possessions.
With Miller and Bailey missing, two of the Broncos' best defensive players have been linebacker Wesley Woodyard and cornerback Chris Harris. Both suffered injuries in the first half and didn't return.
Manning doesn't throw long unless he has to. On his four touchdown passes, he didn't have to, as they went for 4, 2, 9 and 2 yards. His touchdown run was for no more than an inch. Manning faked the handoff to tailback Montee Ball, then took off around left end. Cowboys right defensive end DeMarcus Ware crashed into the middle — where Ball didn't have the ball.
Peyton pranced alone to the left side of the end zone. Some games, a team needs its quarterback more than in others. In this one, Manning did it all.
Pass or Fail
Peyton Manning threw. He ran. He handed off. He proved his bionic neck responds favorably to his face mask being yanked by a 270-pound man. Add in the receivers' consistently good play and Knowshon Moreno's boost to the offense, and there's not much more to say. Manning & Co. were terrific, again.
For much of the middle two quarters, it seemed the Broncos' lead should have been much bigger, for which the defense was to blame. Injuries (Wesley Woodyard, Chris Harris) and ineptitude combined for a messy day until linebacker Danny Trevathan came up with the play of the day, an interception setting up the winning field goal.
There weren't any explosive plays or big scores, which have become the currency of this special-teams unit, but it also didn't make any mistakes and generally gave Denver good field position.
It's hard to blame the coaches for this game turning into a shootout. With so many injuries on defense, Tony Romo picked the Broncos apart — until it mattered most.
Manning. He ran for a touchdown, apparently just to spice things up. Enough said.
Trevathan. Without his interception, the Broncos likely would have lost despite a nearly flawless offensive performance. If that doesn't earn him a game ball, nothing does.
By Joan Niesen, The Denver Post