By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
It was just one game, but not just any game. Sunday night, the curtain was lifted on Peyton Manning's comeback, for four quarters against a real nemesis when the results really mattered for the Denver Broncos.
Pressure? It had the buzz of a playoff game at Sports Authority Field.
It's not every day that you get to see whether a four-time NFL MVP quarterback coming off four neck surgeries and a one-year layoff can still hack it.
"I didn't say it, but this was a huge win for us," John Elway said late Sunday night from the corner of a near-empty Broncos locker room. "We go to Atlanta next week, then we've got Houston at home. If you don't get off to a good start, it would've been tough."
The 31-19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was sealed late in the fourth quarter with Tracy Porter's 43-yard touchdown off an interception return, which sparked memories of his game-clinching pick-six against Manning in Super Bowl XLIV for the New Orleans Saints.
The night, however, undeniably belonged to Manning.
"We've been talking about it for six months," Elway said. "I think you saw Peyton Manning still has a lot of football left."
Elway used to thrive in big games during his career as a Hall of Fame quarterback, but now in his role as the Broncos' executive vice president for football operations, his neck is on the line in a different sense.
Luring Manning to Denver after the quarterback was kicked to the curb following 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts- and paying the big bucks with a five-year, $96 million contract with a league-high $19.2 million average salary - might not rank as the biggest risk that Elway will ever take in the front office.
Yet, hands down, no move will ever attract as much scrutiny.
This is a Super Bowl-or-bust mission, and if it doesn't pan out, Elway and Manning sound like they would be at the front of the line in declaring it a failure.
Seeing Manning's impact play out for the first time in a Broncos uniform, though, was the confirmation that Elway - who has seen it on the practice field, seen it on film - could not wait to witness on game day.
Manning has had many more dominant games in his career, when he's passed for 400 yards or thrown for four or five TDs (see the playoff routs against Denver, circa 2004 and 2005, for example). Sunday night, he was surgically efficient, the smooth orchestrator.
The stats tell part of the story. He completed 73% of his passes (19 of 26) for 253 yards, with no picks and two TDs, including a 1-yard fling to Jacob Tamme on a goal-line sprint-out that made it 20-19. His passer rating was a robust 129.2.
His efficiency within the flow of the game was even better, and this is the stuff Elway thought he was buying when Manning was on the hunt for a new team last spring.
With Pittsburgh hogging the clock for 35 minutes, 5 seconds of possession - including scoring drives that took up 14, 16 and 14 plays - Manning had limited opportunities. Excluding kneel-down possessions at the end of each half, Denver had just seven possessions, with their points all coming on the last four.
The contrast was striking. While Pittsburgh nearly pulled off the upset by wisely playing a clock-control game, the Broncos rolled fast with a no-huddle offense that they unveiled in the second quarter that ultimately seemed to wear down the Steelers defense.
"I think it made a difference," Manning said. "I can't speak to whether it fatigued them or not - I don't know that - but it did give our offense a little boost, where we got into a little rhythm."
Last season with Tim Tebow as quarterback, the no-huddle was not an option during the normal flow of the game; it was strictly a desperate measure while in comeback mode.
This might take a bit of getting used to.
"I probably take more blows than the average guy," said Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas. "But you want to stay in as long as you can, with our quarterback. Once you get in it, he doesn't want anybody subbing. And you don't want to sub, because that would give the defense the chance to sub also."
Thomas surely got into the flow. In the third quarter, he took a short hitch pass from Manning and turned it into a 71-yard score that marked his quarterback's 400th career TD pass.
Listening to Manning described the play afterward reminded you of another element he brings to the Broncos. He sounded like a coach during film study.
"Some really good blocking on that play," he said. "Zane (Beadles) had a good block and (Ryan) Clady. Matt Wills came all the way from the back side to get the safety, and of course, Demaryius did a majority of the work."
It was one of the Broncos' two offensive snaps in the entire third quarter.
Denver's defense seemed to be on the verge of wilting. For much of the game, Roethlisberger was at his best on third-and-long, scrambling to create space and then finding open receivers to keep drives alive.
"I certainly have seen that before," Manning said. "You get up to warm up, kind of getting ready on third-and-15, and he converts them, and you go back and sit down again. Obviously, it was frustrating."
Yet, the Broncos defense had at least one good reason to hang tough: Manning.
His presence affects the psyche of the defense, too.
"It brings confidence," said defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "You know it's not the end of the world if you don't stop 'em, that you know he can put up points, too. It's huge for us."
Elway knows. That's what great quarterbacks tend to do. They lift the whole program.
"It gives you hope," he said.
For one night anyway, there is no shortage of that.
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY