The more things change, the more they stay the same. Peyton Manning played his first meaningful game since Jan. 8, 2011. But even after missing an entire season, enduring four neck surgeries and switching teams during the offseason, the four-time MVP didn’t miss a beat — completing 19-of-26 passes (73.1 percent) for 253 yards, two TDs and zero INTs for a 129.2 passer rating during a 31–19 win over the Steelers.
“It definitely is a special win,” said Manning. “I know how hard I’ve worked and how many people have helped me in this process. I’m grateful, and I’m definitely appreciative of the moment and the opportunity.”
On the other side, Pittsburgh was playing in Denver for the second straight game, having ended last year with a 29–23 loss in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. And although the opposing starting quarterback has since changed, the results were eerily similar nine months later.
Last season, the Steelers lost on an 80-yard “Mile High Miracle” pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime. This time around, Manning found Thomas for a 71-yard catch-and-run the vaunted Steel Curtain defense was yet again unable to predict or stop.
“We weren’t thinking an 80-yard touchdown — maybe a nine-yard gain is kind of what I was thinking. So it sure was a nice surprise,” said Manning. “Of course, Demaryius did the majority of the work and really turned it on with great speed. Just a huge play.”
The dramatic scoring strike was Manning’s first TD pass as a Bronco and the 400th of his 15-year career. The third quarterback in history to throw 400-plus TD passes, Manning joins Brett Favre (508) and Dan Marino (420) in the record books — although he needed 18 fewer games and 473 fewer pass attempts to become a member of the elite fraternity.
“Dan Marino and Brett Favre are two of my favorite players of all time — two of the best quarterbacks of all time,” Manning said. “I don’t really feel comfortable being in that company, but to be mentioned amongst them is truly humbling and quite an honor. It’s not one I take lightly.”
The game also included a few blasts from the past. Denver’s sack master Von Miller celebrated the first of his two sacks by “Tebowing” to show a “little love” to Denver’s former QB. And cornerback Tracy Porter — the man responsible for the most memorable lowlight of Manning’s career — sealed the win for the Broncos with a pick-six of Ben Roethlisberger, just as Porter did against Manning as a member of the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
But in the end, all that mattered was Manning’s triumphant return. It was as if No. 18 never left at all.
“What can you say?” said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. “I mean, he’s Peyton Manning.”