Broncos finally playing at Manning's level

Peyton Manning and the Broncos are clicking and have sole possession of first place in the AFC West. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

DENVER -- Three weeks ago, the Denver Broncos weren’t playing up to Peyton Manning's standards.

Denver's offense and defense were nowhere close to matching the high level of play of Manning, its 36-year-old quarterback who signed with the Broncos because of their potential to win big.

Manning's teammates on offense were not blocking well and were not holding on to the ball well. Defensively, the Broncos were getting shredded when it counted most and were lacking a killer instinct. After a loss at the New England Patriots three weeks ago, Denver cornerback Champ Bailey chided the team for wasting a strong Manning performance.

Bailey said the Broncos needed to raise their level of play to help Manning. It's three weeks later, and the Broncos are on the upswing.

Denver showed a national audience Sunday night that it can be a complete team in an impressive 34-14 pounding of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints clearly aren’t an elite team this season, but a Drew Brees-led team is always potent.

We expected a shootout. We got a shutdown.

The Broncos parlayed their complete victory into a 4-3 record and sole possession of first place in the AFC West. In Week 6 (they had a bye last week), they forced a first-place tie with the Chargers by scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half to stun San Diego. The 35-24 win was one of the great all-time comebacks in the NFL. In the past six quarters, Denver has outscored its opponents 69-14.

Many league observers predicted Manning and his teammates might start to click around midseason, and it looks like that's just what's happening. There is much to like about the state of this team: The meat of the Broncos' schedule is behind them, the conference as a whole is down and they are doing everything better.

Most importantly, the Broncos are playing well early in games. In Denver’s three losses -- to Atlanta, Houston and New England -- it fell behind by double digits, only to come back but fall short. Going into Sunday’s game, the Broncos were the NFL’s best team in the fourth quarter, as they had outscored their opponents by a mind-blowing margin of 79-6.

The Broncos didn’t need any late-game dominance Sunday, as they put this one to bed early on a school night. They had a 17-7 lead at the half and were up 31-7 six seconds into the fourth quarter. They cruised the rest of the way.

“It’s a lot more fun than the alternative, that’s for sure,” Denver coach John Fox said.

Denver played near flawlessly, and the only miscue was a Willis McGahee fumble that sparked a Saints scoring drive to tie it in the second quarter. That was merely a speed bump on this night.

Is this the game in which the Broncos finally found their rhythm?

“It was pretty good,” receiver Brandon Stokley said. “It wasn’t perfect, we have things to work on, but it was pretty good.”

The key to it all, of course, is Manning. He has been on an incredible tear since throwing three interceptions in the first quarter at Atlanta in Week 2. He has thrown just one pick since then and has been brilliant. He was 22-of-30 for 305 yards Sunday night with three touchdown passes. It was his fifth straight game in which he threw for 300-plus yards -- tying a personal record and setting a new mark for the club.

Incredibly, after missing all of last season with a neck injury that required four surgeries, Manning is a legitimate MVP candidate. Still, the Broncos won’t be in the run for the Super Bowl unless he gets some help. Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas had seven catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. McGahee had 122 yards on 23 carries. As a team, the Broncos ran for 225 yards as they racked up 530 yards of total offense. Manning was never sacked.

While the Denver offense soared, the team has to be excited about its defensive performance against Brees. The electric quarterback was not a factor Sunday night. He threw for just 213 yards and went nearly three full quarters between scores.

“We made sure we started fast,” Bailey said. “And we kept it rolling throughout the game.”

The Broncos might finally be catching up to their quarterback.