DENVER — 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 straight. Manning has 34 touchdowns and 4,355 passing yards this season – second-most touchdowns he’s thrown in his 14 seasons and 203 away from second-most yards, as well.
Yet, when asked if he’s playing as well as he did in his prime, Manning didn’t hesitate: “I don’t. I do not. I don’t,” he said.
“A 36-year-old quarterback coming off a year and a half off, playing on a new team, I’m trying to be as good as I possibly can in this scenario,” he said in an unusually candid news conference. “It’s a different kind of body I’m playing in and just a different kind of quarterback play for me.”
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.
Manning’s 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.
Cleveland (5-10) lost its second straight 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 can’t keep coming here talking all the same.”