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 recorded 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.”
Yes, Manning says, it takes more time with the trainer, more time in the weight room and there’s more mystery because of the injury. But when he hits the field, he looks like the quarterback who has a record four Most Valuable Player awards and is in the running for a fifth.
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.
“People call that the Dwight Clark throw,” Manning said of the iconic Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark touchdown that won the 1981 NFC title game for San Francisco.
Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown had blanket-tight coverage on both balls. Sometimes the other guy is simply better.
“I’ve seen him do a lot of special things,” said receiver Brandon Stokley, who also played with Manning in Indianapolis. “It would be hard, at this point, for anything he does to surprise me.”
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. Coach Pat Shurmur offered no additional information on the injuries.
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.”
As good as the Broncos were, there were frustrations. Denver finished with a season-high 11 penalties; Manning threw an interception that ended a long second-quarter drive inside the Cleveland 10; Broncos kick returners bobbled the ball twice, but recovered both; Browns lineman Billy Winn plowed guard Zane Beadles into Manning, altering the trajectory of the pass 30 feet into the air for an incompletion. Manning pounded his fist into the turf after that one.
Imperfections like that have helped the Broncos stay remarkably focused on next week — in this case, a regular-season finale against Kansas City (2-13) — instead of a playoff road that seemingly looks easier after every win. This week, it was Houston falling at home, 23-6 to Minnesota, dropping the Texans into a tie for the first spot in the AFC. Houston holds the tiebreaker against Denver, but has a much tougher game — at Indianapolis (10-5).
“We see it,” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said of the standings. “But it doesn’t distract us.”
Miller’s 1½ sacks gave him 17½ for the season, topping Elvis Dumervil’s franchise record by ½.
“Individual accomplishments are great, but I think it just says the type of defense that we play here,” Miller said.
Denver put this game away during an eight-minute stretch in the third quarter after Cleveland cut its deficit to 14-6.
Manning led a 91-yard touchdown drive, highlighted when he threw a dart that slammed off Decker’s hands and dropped into Stokley’s. Just another Broncos first down — and another sign this was not Cleveland’s day. Two plays later, Manning hit Decker for an 8-yard touchdown, and three plays after that, Miller knocked Weeden out of the game.
Denver reached 30 points for the 10th time this season, yet another benchmark of success for Manning, a quarterback who insists age and injury have turned him into someone much different than what he once was.
“The ramifications of the (injury) is part of it, and part of it is probably being 36, and part of it is probably playing with a new team,” he said. “You can probably add them all together. I’m just trying to kind of be the best I can be in this role.”
Notes: With his 53 yards, Richardson has 950, surpassing Jim Brown for the franchise rookie record. … Denver’s 10-game win streak matches the second longest in franchise history, in 1984, when John Elway was quarterback. … Manning passed Elway and Jake Plummer for second most yards passing in a season for the Broncos. Manning needs 172 to break Jay Cutler’s record.