Peyton Manning's surgical performance during Sunday night's 34-14 victory over the Saints serves as further proof that "The Sheriff" is back and deadlier than ever.
Hell, he even made fellow future Hall Of Fame quarterback Drew Brees look average, as Manning finished with 305 yards to go along with three touchdowns in the win.
Sure, you may be able to argue his arm strength isn't what it used to be, but that's irrelevant. Just look at Manning's last five games : 14 touchdowns to one interception. A 68.6 completion percentage. A passer rating of 115.9. Oh, and he's passed for 300 yards in each of these five games. That's only the second time he's done that in his legendary career.
Manning's combination of pin-point accuracy and brilliant dissection of defenses have propelled the Broncos to first place in the AFC West. But of course, he can't do this alone. Here are five keys and weapons of Manning's impressive run with the premier dark horse team in the AFC:
5. Brandon Stokley – Last year Stokley played in two games with the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, but he only had one catch all season long. Now reunited with his Colts teammate of four years with whom he shared a special chemistry with, the 36-year-old Stokley has positively impacted the offense, playing in slot, but more importantly he's helped the young Broncos receiving corps understand Manning's complex approach.
4. The Defense – After a seemingly average start to the season, the Broncos defense is only getting better. The Saint's number one ranked passing attack was held to only 213 yards against a secondary that is rapidly approaching elite status that includes All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey leading the troops. After spotting the Chargers 24 points in last week's comeback win, the Von Miller/Elvis Dumervil combination put the pressure on Philip Rivers in the second half as they forced five turnovers, three sacks and gave up no points. In fact, the Broncos have only been scored on twice in the fourth quarter this season. Talk about keeping your team in the game.
3. Eric Decker – Manning's favorite option in the red zone of late has been Decker. He has scored five touchdowns in his last four games. Decker is Manning's most trusted receiver inside the 20-yard line and has become the Marvin Harrison of sorts for the Broncos. A No. 2 receiver who's stock is constantly rising.
2. The Offensive Line – Major credit must go to Manning's offensive line. After being ranked near the bottom of the league last year, the o-line has postured themselves as the fourth best line in the NFL this season. That's also after losing their leader, guard Chris Kuper. They've only let Manning get sacked 10 times this season and they continue to open holes for veteran running back Willis McGahee to burst through. Manning's success is a tribute to the line's determination when it comes to protecting their general.
1. Demaryius Thomas – Thomas has emerged as Manning's most dangerous target and the kid has potential to be elite. His first two years as a pro came with its ups and downs due to injury and weak quarterbacking (Ahem..Tebow). But in his third season, Thomas has been a monster. At 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, the 24-year-old is becoming one of the most dangerous big play receivers in the league as he is virtually unstoppable in one-on-one coverage. Averaging 18.5 yards per catch in the past four games, Thomas recorded 100 yards receiving for the third time this year as he reeled in 137 yards on Sunday night.
Manning's confidence in Thomas has increased week by week and it's obvious his receiver has shown vast improvement in finding the seams in the opposing defense.
"He's got the size, speed and strength," Manning said of Thomas. "And I feel he's working on his craft every week."
The Broncos move to 4-3 as the Saints fall to 2-5.
Zachary Hutton is the lead boxing writer and an NFL contributor for CraveOnline Sports. You can see what he's up to at his band's website myunclethewolf.com or also subscribe atFacebook.com/CraveOnlineSports.