Top 5 Peyton Manning TD passes

Peyton Manning's memory lane is some kind of cerebral Autobahn, fast and flowing, seemingly without speed limits.

At least when it comes to football.

This past summer Manning was, of course, remembering a play from almost two decades ago: "You know, I do wonder sometimes, that, like I say, I can't remember if I locked a certain door at the house, but I can see a seam route to Marvin [Harrison] from 1999 like it just happened."

And earlier this season, there was this:

"I can't remember a lot of things -- important things -- but I have a lot of useless information in my mind," Manning said. "I can remember Trevor Insley caught a pass up the left sideline against Atlanta on a fake screen pass. That's actually a very disturbing memory."

Insley caught one touchdown pass in his NFL career -- a 19-yard pass from Manning, against, yes, the Falcons, on Dec. 16, 2001.

So touchdown passes? Even with the most in NFL history, Manning remembers them all. But picking his favorite or most memorable? Impossible.

When it comes to records, as longtime friend Brandon Stokley said: "He won't make it about him, he won't let himself. He'll make it about everybody else."

So when we asked Manning if he could pick his five most meaningful touchdown passes on the way to the regular-season record, he could not. Too many teammates, too many games, too much work in too many practices to put one receiver before another, one play ahead of another, one teammate ahead of another.

So we made a list, checked it untold times, talked to those who have played with Manning, who have coached him, those who have caught and coached most of the touchdowns he has thrown. We selected five that are part of the still-growing, remember-when story.

And we showed the five to Manning. He corrected an error, and that was that. He didn't veto, didn't necessarily approve. Probably because it is impossible for him to choose.

"I think he would love them all," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "Someday people are going to ask me about catching passes from him -- well, some people ask me now -- but he's the greatest of all time. You get in the right place, do what you're supposed to do, put your hands up and he puts a touchdown in them."

Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught Peyton Manning's record-breaking 509th touchdown pass Sunday night.

The seats had long been empty by the time Thomas made his way down the tunnel from the Broncos locker room, past the ambulance, the TV trucks and clean-up crews inside Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday night.

Thomas, who was the Broncos' first-round draft pick in 2010, wondered back then what could become of running routes in an offense that was primarily a read-option attack.

Two-plus seasons later, he is one of the league's elite receivers, a favored target of the most prolific touchdown thrower the NFL has ever known.

"Special," Thomas said. "Just really special. I'm fortunate to play wide receiver with him as a quarterback, I'm fortunate to be on this team, I'm fortunate to catch 509. You don't forget that, I'll never forget it."

Thomas, who caught Manning's first touchdown pass after he signed with the Broncos in 2012, caught Manning's 110th touchdown pass as a Broncos quarterback -- the one that broke Brett Favre's NFL record of 508 career touchdown passes.

In an offense built on precision, timing and preparation, there was a moment in the second quarter Sunday when it looked as though history would have to wait. On first-and-goal from the San Francisco 49ers 1-yard line, the Broncos took all the wide receivers out and lined up with four tight ends, including reserve tackle Chris Clark as one of the four.

"Big personnel in, I was like 'Aw man, [the record] might be going to Julius [Thomas],'" Thomas said. "In my head, I was still happy though, Peyton would get 509, we would get another touchdown, [Julius] dropped it and I was like 'Oh, I might have a chance.'"

Indeed, Julius Thomas couldn't reel in Manning's pass.

"I just threw it behind him," Manning said. "I really missed it, it was a good route by him, a bad throw."

Which gave the Broncos second-and-goal from the 1. Manning promptly tripped after he took the snap, fell backward and was touched down for a 7-yard loss by 49ers linebacker Chris Borland.

"I thought I had a chance, but Peyton fell down," Thomas said. "I thought my chance was over ... I saw Peyton fall ... I felt like he was still trying to throw the ball sitting on his butt."

"I wasn't feeling really great on that third down," Manning said. "A missed throw and I don't know what you would call that second play, a missed standing up, I guess. So it's a tough play call, we're third-and-goal from the [8-yard line]."

As offensive coordinator Adam Gase often does, the Broncos spread the defense thin on third down, emptied the backfield, lining up running back Ronnie Hillman as well as tight end Julius Thomas and the three Broncos receivers sideline-to-sideline.

Thomas was lined up wide right with 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock across from him. At the snap Thomas powered off the line, forcing Brock to back off just enough for Thomas to cut hard to the right front corner of the end zone.

Manning, as he had 508 times before, put the ball where it had to be and Thomas got his feet in bounds for the record.

"I came out [of my break] and saw the ball in the spot, I beat my cornerback to the spot," Thomas said. "I knew I could make a play on the ball. I just wanted to make sure to keep my feet in bounds. I wasn't sure how to act. It was just very special."

Thomas was asked about Manning's place among all who have thrown passes in the NFL. Unfair to be sure, but he admits his bias.

"Best to ever play the game, best ever," Thomas said. "He may be a better player [now] than when I first came in. He changed up some things, how we run routes, how we watch film. I sit there and watch him in the film room, see what he does, it makes everybody a better player around him."

And as he went up the tunnel and into the night he added: "He's made me a better player, made reach for things I can see that are out there."

Read about Manning's four other most meaningful TD passes:

First NFL TD (Marvin Harrison) | First in a victory (Marshall Faulk)

First game winner (Marcus Pollard)

First for Broncos (Demaryius Thomas)