By his own estimation, Peyton Manning is not the quarterback he used to be.
Try telling that to the Cleveland Browns.
Manning threw for a season-high 339 yards and three touchdowns, two of which he zinged into impossibly tight windows to well-covered receivers. That pushed the Denver Broncos into a first-place tie in the AFC standings with a 34-12 win over the Browns.
The 36-year-old quarterback got his 72nd career three-touchdown game Sunday as Denver (12-3) won its 10th in a row. Manning has 34 touchdowns and 4,355 passing yards this season the second-most touchdowns hes thrown in his 14 seasons and 203 away from his second-most yards, as well.
Yet, when asked if hes playing as well as he did in his prime, Manning didnt hesitate: I dont. I do not. I dont, he said.
A 36-year-old quarterback coming off a year and a half off, playing on a new team Im trying to be as good as I possibly can in this scenario, he said in an unusually candid news conference. Its a different kind of body Im playing in and just a different kind of quarterback play for me.
Yes, Manning said, it takes more time with the trainer, more time in the weight room, and theres more mystery because of the injury. But when he hits the field, he looks like the quarterback who has a record four Most Valuable Player awards and is in the running for a fifth.
His first two touchdown passes, to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, were Exhibits A and B of his prowess on a breezy, warm day the quarterback used to test out an orange glove. He may use it when the weather gets colder come playoff time.
The throw to Thomas was a 22-yarder lobbed to the back of the end zone. The 10-yard touchdown to Decker was more of a laser. Like the Thomas touchdown, it was thrown in leaping range of the receiver where only he could catch it.
People call that the Dwight Clark throw, Manning said of the iconic Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown that won the 1981 NFC title game for San Francisco.
Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown had blanket-tight coverage on both balls. Sometimes the other guy simply is better.
Ive seen him do a lot of special things, said receiver Brandon Stokley, who also played with Manning in Indianapolis. It would be hard, at this point, for anything he does to surprise me.
Mannings mastery opens things up for the Denver defense to get aggressive, and it did finishing with six sacks, all in the second half.
Von Miller was in on two, the second of which knocked quarterback Brandon Weeden out of the game with an injury to his right shoulder. Late in the fourth quarter, Browns running back Trent Richardson was carted off the field, with trainers looking at his left ankle. Coach Pat Shurmur offered no additional information on the injuries.
Cleveland (5-10) lost its second in a row after winning three in a row.
Our record (stinks), and everybody is disappointed, defensive back Joe Haden said. Every week it seems like you lose a game and you try to explain why it happened, that you just lost. We need to do better. We just need to win. We cant keep coming here talking all the same.
As good as the Denver Broncos were, there were frustrations:
Denver finished with a season-high 11 penalties.
Manning threw an interception that ended a long second-quarter drive inside the Cleveland 10.
Broncos kick returners bobbled the ball twice but recovered both.
Browns lineman Billy Winn plowed guard Zane Beadles into Manning, altering the trajectory of the pass 30 feet into the air for an incompletion. Manning pounded his fist into the turf after that one.
Imperfections such as those have helped the Broncos stay remarkably focused on next week in this case, a regular-season finale against Kansas City (2-13) instead of a playoff road that seemingly looks easier after every win. This week, it was Houston falling at home, 23-6 to Minnesota, dropping the Texans into a tie for the first spot in the AFC. Houston holds the tiebreaker against Denver but has a much tougher game at Indianapolis (10-5).
We see it, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said of the standings. But it doesnt distract us.
Millers 1½ sacks gave him 17½ for the season, topping Elvis Dumervils franchise record by a half-sack.
Individual accomplishments are great, but I think it just says the type of defense that we play here, Miller said.
Denver put this game away during an eight-minute stretch in the third quarter after Cleveland cut its deficit to 14-6.
Manning led a 91-yard touchdown drive, highlighted when he threw a dart that slammed off Deckers hands and dropped into Stokleys. Just another Broncos first down and another sign this was not Clevelands day. Two plays later, Manning hit Decker for an 8-yard touchdown, and three plays after that, Miller knocked Weeden out of the game.
Denver reached 30 points for the 10th time this season, yet another benchmark of success for Manning, a quarterback who insists age and injury have turned him into someone much different than what he once was.
The ramifications of the (injury) is part of it, and part of it is probably being 36, and part of it is probably playing with a new team, he said. You can probably add them all together. Im just trying to kind of be the best I can be in this role.