USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lindsay H. Jones discusses Peyton Manning's milestone and how many more touchdowns he could throw by the time his career ends.
DENVER — Peyton Manning now stands alone as the NFL's all-time touchdown king.
The Denver Broncos' 38-year-old quarterback threw touchdown No. 509 of his career Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers to break Brett Favre's career record.
The record-breaker went to receiver Demaryius Thomas, at 7:42 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, with three minutes and nine seconds remaining in the second quarter to give the Broncos a 21-3 lead in a game Denver would go on to win 42-17.
Thomas, fellow receivers Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Julius Thomas — Manning's stellar stable of pass catchers — then engaged in a pre-planned game of keep-away with the record-setting ball before finally letting Manning get his hands on it one more time before it heads to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For a moment, it appeared the NFL's best prankster had been punked on his own big night.
"I can't believe they actually did it," Manning said. "We sort of joked about it during the week. I'm a little bit hurt by the fact that they could do that, that they're kind of picking on me."
But no, this, like so much of Manning's Hall of Fame career, was diligently crafted.
"He actually planned it himself," Demaryius Thomas said.
Planned or not, it was a special, silly moment for one of the NFL's all-time greatest players.
After Manning finally secured the milestone ball, he was mobbed on the Broncos' sideline. Head coach John Fox pulled his quarterback into a bear hug, and more players than Manning could count slapped him on the helmet and shoulder pads as Sports Authority Field at Mile High public address announcer Alan Roach alerted the crowd to the milestone.
"Broncos fans, you have just witnessed history," Roach said, introducing a pre-taped video tribute that featured messages from Favre, Broncos general manager John Elway and several Broncos teammates.
But the fans here didn't need the reminder. They arrived well aware of the impending history, and the tension grew after he tossed career touchdown No. 507 on the Broncos' opening drive and the record-tying touchdown later in the first quarter.
Those rapid scores left little doubt that the record would be broken against the 49ers. But when would it happen? And who would be the lucky receiver to catch it?
As the Broncos marched toward the south end zone, flash bulbs from cell phone cameras popped at every snap. They recorded an incomplete pass to Julius Thomas in the end zone, an ugly sack after Manning stumbled backwards and landed on his backside, before, finally, the touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the right front corner of the end zone.
Manning entered Sunday night's game needing two touchdowns to tie Favre and three to break the record. Touchdown No. 507 went to Sanders and No. 508 to Welker — the first touchdown catch of the season for both receivers.
Manning would extend his record to 510 with another toss to Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter, a 40-yard bomb one play after cornerback Aqib Talib intercepted San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That touchdown was the 30th between Manning and Thomas, the most of any Bronco, and the fifth-most of any of Manning's teammates.
Manning's longtime Indianapolis Colts teammate Marvin Harrison caught 112 of Manning's touchdowns, followed by Reggie Wayne with 67.
But so many of those touchdowns with the Colts feel like distant history now, part of the first chapter, albeit a long one, of Manning's career.
That Manning has reached Favre's record so quickly, in his 246th game — 56 fewer games than it took Favre — is a testament to the career rejuvenation he experienced in Denver.
GALLERY — PEYTON MANNING: FROM TENNESSEE TO 510 TDs
When he was cut by the Indianapolis Colts in March 2012, after four surgeries on his neck including a spinal fusion surgery that forced him to miss the entire NFL season, it was fair to wonder if his Hall of Fame career would end with 399 touchdowns.
"I certainly didn't think this would be a possibility a couple of years ago," Manning said.
But since arriving in Denver, where he signed a five-year contract that runs through 2016, Manning has somehow been a better version of himself as he adjusted to his new body. He threw 37 touchdowns his first season with the Broncos, while spending more time in the training room and with his doctors than in the weight room as he worked to regain strength in his right triceps and waited for his nerve damage to improve.
That didn't fully happen until last year, and Manning tied an NFL record with seven touchdowns in the season opener against Baltimore. By the time the season was over, Manning owned the single-season touchdown record (55), the single-season passing yardage record (5,477) and had earned his fifth MVP award.
Tight end Jacob Tamme is the only current Bronco to have played with Manning in both Indianapolis and Denver. He knew Manning before the spinal fusion surgery, he saw him sidelined for the 2011 season and he's seen every step of the process that has led Manning back. Perhaps more than any other player, Tamme could appreciate Manning's journey to reach this major milestone.
"Definitely there were those moments in the rehab process, but he just worked so hard to get better," Tamme told USA TODAY Sports. "That's another part of what makes it so special. I mean, it really is incredible."
While in New Jersey in the week before the Super Bowl, Manning summarily dismissed nearly a week's worth of questions about if he would retire if the Broncos were to win. They didn't, and of course, he didn't — and Manning, now 38 years old, seems intent on playing out his contract with the Broncos, provided he doesn't hit a physical or mental wall before his 40th birthday.
If Manning continues throwing touchdowns at the pace he set when he arrived in Denver, with 2.9 touchdowns per game, Manning will pass 600 touchdowns in 2016, and could conceivably throw for more than 630 touchdowns.
"I don't know how long he's going to play and how the rest of the season is going to play out, but I feel like he has a lot left where he can go out and throw (touchdowns)," Demaryius Thomas said. "I can't put a number on it. But the way he is playing, I feel like he can just go out and average three, four or five touchdowns a game. Hopefully, because that's good, it's good for the offense, good for the team, and I hope a couple of those go my way."
When Manning threw touchdown No. 500 two weeks ago, he said he expected several other of the league's current top quarterbacks to reach that mark as well. But to throw more than 600? It's hard to imagine the likes of Tom Brady or Drew Brees getting there. Brady, only one year younger than Manning, has 372 touchdowns. Brees, 35, has 374. Aaron Rodgers, another Super Bowl winner and former league MVP, has just 206.
The most intriguing young quarterback who could perhaps one day chase Manning's record is the one who is following him in Indianapolis — the Colts' third-year quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck has 65 touchdowns in his first 39 games; Manning had 64.
For now, and for the indefinite future, the record is Manning's alone.
By the third quarter of the Broncos' Sunday night blowout of the 49ers, Manning's record-breaking touchdown ball was in possession of Joe Horrigan, the vice president of communications and exhibits at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Horrigan placed the ball into a blue canvas bag. Horrigan will carry it through Denver International Airport on Monday morning — he wouldn't dare risk it getting lost in checked luggage, Horrigan told USA TODAY Sports — and it will be on display in Canton by Monday afternoon. There, it will join a host of other career mementos from Manning dating back to his rookie season through his single-season record-breaking ball from 2013 and a Broncos uniform from his 2013 MVP season.
But first, Manning got to hold it one more time. Horrigan carried that blue canvas bag into the Broncos locker room, pulled out the ball and handed it to Manning once the quarterback had changed out of his all-blue uniform and into a blue plaid blazer. Manning posed for pictures with it, along with his wife Ashley, his longtime agent Tom Condon and Fox.
Rarely one to reflect on his legacy and career milestones midseason, it was clear that this was one moment that truly mattered.
"I'm very humbled and very honored. I certainly think about how grateful I am for all the teammates and coaches that I've played with and played for throughout my career, not only here in Denver — in Indianapolis and all the people that have helped me along the way," Manning said. "I've always been a big fan of quarterbacks, whether it's Brett Favre or Dan Marino or John Elway. I'm very honored and humbled to join a pretty unique club."
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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