DENVER (AP) — Peyton Manning threw a touchdown to a defensive lineman and completed another pass to a receiver who was flat on his back.
It wasn’t until the Broncos quarterback started using more traditional methods – most notably, looking for receiver Demaryius Thomas – that Denver started running away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to clinch the AFC West.
Manning threw three touchdown passes, one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and two more to Thomas, to help the Broncos wrap up the division title Sunday with a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers. The loss by Tampa Bay (6-6) clinched the NFC South for the Atlanta Falcons.
Manning finished 27 for 38 for 242 yards. His second touchdown pass gave him 28 on the year and moved him past Jake Plummer and John Elway for the most TD passes for a Denver quarterback in a single season.
And there are still four games to go for the Broncos (9-3), who have a seven-game winning streak for the fourth time in franchise history. Or, really, five, counting at least one home playoff game they’re guaranteed after winning the division for the second straight year.
After falling behind 31-13, Tampa Bay pulled within eight late. The Broncos got in victory formation twice at the end and, as is Bucs coach Greg Schiano’s wont, the Bucs’ defense contested the plays. That led to pushing and shoving at the end but no coach-to-coach conflict the way Giants coach Tom Coughlin confronted Schiano earlier in the season under similar circumstances.
Despite the Denver offense’s big numbers, which included eight catches for 99 yards for Thomas, this was, yet again, a far-from-perfect effort from Manning and Co.
The quarterback was frustrated in this first half, as a series of penalties, bad throws and missed protections kept him biding his time on the bench. That gave him plenty of time to coach up the linemen and receivers. One time, flushed out of the pocket, Manning kept a drive going by zinging a dart for a third-and-1 completion to Knowshon Moreno, who had fallen down in the flat.
The quarterback laughed about that one, but the only real highlight of the first half was his 1-yard touchdown pass to Unrein, the second-year player from Wyoming, who became the first defensive lineman to catch a touchdown pass in Broncos history.
Unrein also played into another score, hitting Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman as he threw in the third quarter. That resulted in an interception to Von Miller, who went 26 yards for the score that made it 28-10. It was Miller’s first career score and he celebrated by doing his dance thing, not in the backfield, but this time in the other team’s end zone.
The Broncos’ defense did a nice job on Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin, who finished with 56 yards on 18 carries and was never a factor.
Still, the Bucs played the first half like the contender they have become. Freeman found Mike Williams in single coverage down the middle for a 40-yard gain. Martin followed with a 7-yard run, then another for 5, then Freeman found Manning’s old buddy in Indianapolis, Dallas Clark, for an 11-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
The teams played a scoreless second quarter that featured three punts, five penalties and a number of other bobbles and miscommunications that don’t show up in the stat sheet.
But when they came out after halftime, Denver was a different team.
Manning completed three passes on a quick, 52-yard touchdown drive to put Denver in the lead again, capping it with an 8-yard pass to Thomas, who had a sliver of space in the back of the end zone.
After a three-and-out, Manning did it again, starting the drive with a 14-yard pass to Jacob Tamme (nine catches, 89 yards), and capping it five plays later with a 10-yard score to Thomas, who this time beat double coverage.
After the touchdown drive, Freeman never got comfortable again. He finished 18 for 39 for 242 yards as the Bucs fell a game behind Seattle for the NFC’s second wild-card spot.