ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — So much is made of what Peyton Manning's passes look like after four neck operations and a season away from football.
Do they wobble? Do they spiral? Do they dip or dive?
No matter, they're almost always on target.
The Denver Broncos quarterback is completing 68 percent of his throws, just shy of his career high of 68.8 percent set in 2009 — and that's with his top two targets dropping 15 passes.
Manning has completed at least 70 percent of his throws eight times this season, tying his career high. He's also on pace to throw for 4,669 yards, which would be 31 yards short of his career best.
"I think it's pretty historical," coach John Fox said. "I wish we'd documented the process, to be honest with you. He had to come back from the injury he had, the residual of the injury he had. It takes a special guy to come to a new team, new teammates, new city — everything about it is new other than the conference — it's pretty amazing, actually."
Manning's accuracy would be even more remarkable if not for a combined 15 drops by wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who have atoned for their blunders by together collecting 125 receptions for 1,816 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Thomas had two head-turning TD catches last weekend in a win over Tampa Bay that clinched the AFC West for the Broncos (9-3). On one, he reached high between a safety and linebacker in tight coverage to snare the throw, and the other was something special even by Manning's standards.
Thomas curled around defender Leonard Johnson in the end zone. Just as he turned, the pass from Manning was in the crick of his right elbow.
"I threw that ball as early as you can throw a pass," Manning said. "An old coach would call that an anticipatory throw. I'm not sure if that is a word or not. But I threw that ball super early and Demaryius kind of came right around the DB and made a heck of a catch. That was really a special play."
Manning may be as precise as ever, but he's certainly not as polished as he'd like to be in his first season with the Broncos following his departure from Indianapolis. He continues to rehab after his throwing arm was weakened by a nerve injury in his neck that sidelined him all of last season.
"I really feel like I am a different quarterback," said the four-time MVP, who might very well be on his way to a fifth. "I don't think I'm trying to be the quarterback I was when I was 28, 29. I'm 36 years old, I'm coming off a season off. I'm with a new team, new teammates. I'm kind of re-establishing myself as a quarterback at this time.
"It's a totally new chapter in my football career and I'm trying to be the best quarterback I can in this chapter. I'm not really trying to outdo the player I was earlier in my career."
In many ways, though, that's exactly what he's doing.
Whatever Manning's lost in zip, he's made up for in other ways. He's completed 304 of 448 passes for 3,502 yards with a franchise-record 29 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions for an AFC-best 104.6 QB rating — second only to his 2004 season.
"I'm not sure I can do some of the things I could do when I was 28," Manning said. "Is that because I'm 36 years old? Could be. Is it because I'm playing with a different team and I'm getting on the same page with different teammates? It could be all of those. It could be a combination of a couple of them."
The things that weren't affected by his neck injury — footwork, balance, alignment, recognition — have all aligned in Denver along with his return to health to make him as good as ever.
"It's like riding a bike because he's played football his entire life," offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. "He was away from it a little bit but once he got back and got into a rhythm and played the game and went through practices, it all came back to him."
It's Manning's smarts more than anything that account for his off-the-charts precision, teammates say.
"It's mostly up here," tight end Joel Dreessen said, pointing both of his index fingers to his head. "A lot of times, coverage dictates where the ball goes and he knows where the open guy is and then obviously he's very good at putting it on the money. It's really a combination of everything, but I would say knowledge of the game is the most important thing, and he'll never lose that."
Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said Manning, whom the Raiders (3-9) will face Thursday night, seems to have honed a sixth sense.
"It's absolutely amazing how he knows where everybody is and that's why he's able to complete 70 percent of his passes. He did a great job against us the first game of just simply getting the ball out accurately and very quickly. I mean, he didn't hold it at all," Tarver said. "He works so relentlessly on his footwork and his timing and getting everybody else to be where he wants them to be that it doesn't surprise me at all."
Notes: Manning is also the league's best crunch-time quarterback this season, throwing for nine touchdowns with no interceptions in the fourth quarter. ... Manning has 75 regular season games with a 70 percent completion percentage, the most all-time. Brett Favre is second with 59. ... LB Wesley Woodyard (ankle) missed practice. D.J. Williams will replace him if necessary against Oakland. ... WR Brandon Stokley (hip) was limited in practice. ... DE Robert Ayers returned to practice after missing all of last week following the death of his father.
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