Vegas has installed the Broncos as the biggest favorites in history against the struggling Jaguars
Manning never had 4 options like this
Even Tony Dungy marvels over this new collection of pass-catchers that Manning brings to Indianapolis for the biggest homecoming since Brett Favre donned purple to so much chagrin at Lambeau Field in 2009.
Andrew Luck doesn't have quite the same cast in Indy that Manning enjoyed there or the one he's doing great things with in Denver, but he does have Reggie Wayne still burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials.
Manning's best year in Indianapolis was 2004, when his trio of 1,000-yard receivers — Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley — combined for 231 catches, 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas are on pace to become the NFL's first foursome of 1,000-yard receivers. This "Fantastic Four" is on pace for an eye-popping 361 receptions, 4,704 yards and 51 TDs.
Manning is loath to compare teams, offenses, seasons. The only thing he'll say is he's still getting used to his new options, not to mention his shuffled offensive line.
He knows this, though: defenses can double-cover three terrific receivers, but not four. And he won't force the issue; he doesn't have to.
"I don't think Peyton Manning falls in love with anybody," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. "I think he falls in love with the single coverage. And when you've got four guys that can win on a consistent basis he's just going to find the single coverage and let them win."
With so many options flooding the field, Manning is getting passes off quickly. He's only been sacked twice since the opener.
Welker is on pace for 21 touchdowns. The most he ever caught from Tom Brady was nine.
"Last year I thought the Denver Broncos were kind of Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker or bust," Collinsworth said. "So much of their stuff was to the outside guys. And now they've got the inside threat, Welker. Obviously, he's as good as there is."
Dungy, Manning's former coach, argues the bigger arrival has been that of Julius Thomas, the athletic tight end who spent his first two seasons trying to get healthy and catching just one pass.
"I think he's really the difference-maker," Dungy said. "And I think this is what made this offense really take a next step to that next level because he is so big and now he's playing with so much confidence."
Julius Thomas' seven TD grabs rank second in the NFL behind Welker's eight.
"And then you can't forget Knowshon Moreno," Dungy added.
He's no Edgerrin James, but Moreno does lead the NFL with seven touchdowns, a welcome addition to Manning's sensational start that includes a record 22 touchdown throws.
For all the emphasis on the pass nowadays, the importance of the ground game has never diminished. As the days grow shorter and colder, it gets harder to move the ball through the air.
The Broncos have scored an NFL-record 265 points in six games and are on pace to shatter New England's single-season record of 589 set in 2007.
They know that's no guarantee they'll be celebrating when the season's over — of the 16 teams that have scored 500 points since 1970, only four have won the Super Bowl — and those '94 49ers, '98 Broncos, '99 Rams and '09 Saints all were ranked sixth or higher in rushing.
The Broncos rank 15th in the league — same as the Colts did in '04.
Tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard combined for 11 TD grabs to complement Manning's trio of 1,000-yard receivers that year, and Indy rolled up 522 points with James Rushing for 1,548 yards. But the Colts lost to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs.
Colts owner Jim Irsay's recent comments about giving up the old Indy offense's "Star Wars" numbers in a quest for more Super Bowl rings drew a lot of criticism, but his point was this: he thinks the way to more championships is a more balanced offense.
That formula will be on display Sunday night when the Broncos (6-0) play the Colts (4-2), a team brimming with a mixture of youth and experience.
They added Trent Richardson, the No. 3 pick in last year's draft, after losing their top two running backs. T.Y. Hilton set the franchise rookie record last season with five 100-yard games and has two more this season.
Speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey was signed as a free agent during the offseason and is still getting acclimated, and tight end Coby Fleener's first two seasons have been tainted by too many drops.
But they once again have the No. 1 pick orchestrating it all.
"Luck, man," Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard said, shaking his head. "He's a playmaker."
Just as his predecessor who's moved on to a sensational second chapter in Denver, where his supporting cast rivals those great ones he had in Indianapolis.
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