HOUSTON -- There are times when history demands a Sharpie.
A little mark, here and there, to make sure things don’t get lost in the shuffle. But along with the third consecutive AFC West title and a first-round postseason bye the Broncos brought with them on their chartered flight Sunday night, there were two pieces of football history.
Two footballs, bearing small notations from Broncos equipment manager Chris Valenti on the laces to label Peyton Manning’s 50th and 51st touchdown passes of the season, were along for the ride.
“And that’s unbelievable," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, after Manning’s four-touchdown day led the Broncos to a 37-13 victory against the Houston Texans. “The guy is in his 16th year. For what this game takes out of you, for what it takes to get yourself ready to perform at the level he performs, to make it into your mid-to-late 30s and to play at the level he is right now, to do what he’s doing, it’s unbelievable. I know everybody sees the numbers and the numbers are records, almost every week a record, but the only people who really appreciate what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, at this stage of his career are probably the people that play. But everybody better enjoy it, because it might be a long time before anybody does anything like this after all he’s been through.’’
It has taken the Broncos almost a year to get from last season’s playoff disappointment to where they are right now. From a double-overtime shocker against the Ravens to what Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips called the “best season ever’’ for a quarterback.
In 15 games, Manning has broken the single-season record for touchdown passes and is 265 yards from tying the single-season record for passing yards, and the Broncos now are 18 points from setting a single-season scoring record.
The Broncos are 28 points from being the league's first 600-point team, and they have five players who have scored at least 10 touchdowns, two 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and one medical marvel at quarterback. Manning finished his work Sunday a long way -- something on the order of a football light year -- from a hospital bed with questions swirling in his mind about whether the NFL would still be a part of his life when his recovery had gone as far as it would go.
Asked whether even he would have believed, in those days and weeks immediately following the Sept. 11, 2011, surgery to remove a herniated disc from his spinal cord, that he would throw 51 touchdown passes in a season, Manning said: "No, probably not. I had no real expectations, because I couldn’t really get any doctor, or anyone, to give me some sort of gauge or timetable or strength recovery, and believe me, I asked every question you possibly could. A lot of them said maybe it would come back to this level, it may not, there was definitely some wait and see. ... But it would be hard to say you could have imagined this at that point.’’
It would be hard to imagine for most anyone not named Manning, Brees or Brady, at any point in any year. The record will show Manning finished 32-of-51 passing for 400 yards to go with four touchdowns against the Texans.
It will show it came in a game that was 16-13 earlier in the fourth quarter, a game that was Manning's 12th game of the season with at least 300 yards passing, his fourth game of the season with at least 400 yards passing and his eighth game of the season with at least four touchdown passes.
Or as Bailey put it: “Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. It just shows you what the guy is made of, what he’s about.’’
The tough part, however, whether the Broncos like it or not, accept it or not, is still coming. They signed Manning, after all, not only to topple some history, but to chase Super Bowl wins and put some additional hardware in the team’s lobby.
And as frustrating as it has been for those who get signed checks from Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to listen to folks continually say nothing else matters, that all-or-nothing mantra lives in the public domain, even as the Broncos have continued to do astounding things on offense that are worthy of appreciation.
There also are lingering questions about the Broncos' defense, questions about the special teams. Questions that grew bigger with a left knee injury to Broncos linebacker Von Miller that many with the team are not optimistic about, as well as a 51-yard return by the Texans, and yet another muffed punt from Denver return man Trindon Holliday.
There also is some slightly unfinished business when the Broncos play for home-field advantage in Oakland next Sunday, a win they will need to force everyone else in the AFC’s playoff field to come chase them around at 5,280 feet.
“Right now it’s about getting ourselves set up just right for the next season, and that’s the playoffs,’’ safety Mike Adams said. “We need to do everything we can to get everything in line for that. Concentrate on Oakland, enjoy this, enjoy what happened [Sunday], but get ready for Oakland. This team knows how to go about it; we’ll get our minds right for what’s to come.’’
But those are questions for another day. For now, for this moment, there are touchdowns and history.
There is the maybe-never-again feel that came with a quarterback’s 51st touchdown pass in a single season. A quarterback with spinal fusion hardware in his neck, a knee brace and an ankle brace.
A quarterback who didn’t know what the future would hold grabbing yet another piece of history.
"My dad [Ron, a retired Navy SEAL] told me a long time ago it's always important to dream dreams and pay the price to make them come true,'' coach John Fox said. "But this is the dream edge of that saying."
“And that’s, like I said, unbelievable,’’ Bailey said. “And he’ll be in there [Monday] getting ready to go for more. I always approach it like that, but when a guy like Peyton does that, that means everybody else has to do it, too. We all need to get ready to go for more.’’