Denver Peyton Manning figured one one-handed catch deserved another.
So, up the ladder he went — throwing the ball high in the back of the end zone to Demaryius Thomas.
Thomas leaped and brought it down with his right hand, then got both feet down inside the line for a touchdown. With that, he joined Eric Decker in Denver’s one-handed-touchdown club Sunday and gave the Broncos another otherworldly highlight to go with their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after a 38-3 runaway over the Kansas City Chiefs.
“They claim they can do that all the time,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, who got to watch the replays of both catches about a half-dozen times on the scoreboard. “They say they practice that. I don’t see it. But as long as they do it on Sunday, I’m all for it. Those are some great, hard-working boys and I expect nothing less.”
Manning, in search of his fifth MVP award and, yes, a second Super Bowl title, finished 23 for 29 for 304 yards, three scores and a 144.8 passer rating. One of his main competitors for the award, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, ran for 199 yards to reach 2,097 for the season in a 37-34 win over Green Bay that secured a playoff berth.
That one went down to the wire. Manning was out of his game by the fourth quarter.
This was the second straight Sunday he used a grey-and-orange glove to prepare for the cold, playoff weather he could face at home the next two games.
“I threw it OK today, I guess,” said Manning, who finished the season with 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and a 105.8 passer rating, all second best in his 15-year career.
Thanks to Houston’s 28-16 loss to Indianapolis before the Broncos kicked off, Denver (13-3) will be the top seed for the sixth time. The Broncos made the Super Bowl four of the previous five times they’ve had home-field advantage.
Though the Chiefs (2-14) gave the Broncos as tough a tussle as anyone during their 11-game winning streak — in a 17-9 loss last month — this wasn’t expected to be much of a game. It wasn’t.
Leave it to Manning, ever the perfectionist, to ramp up the degree of difficulty.
On the 16-yard touchdown to Decker, Manning slightly overthrew the pass but Decker reached out with his left hand, brought the ball into his helmet, had it pinball against his facemask twice, then cradled it with both hands as he was falling to the ground.
“Peyton throws the ball up, giving us a chance to make a play. It’s our job to catch it,” Decker said.
The 13-yard touchdown to the 6-foot-3 Thomas mirrored a TD pass Manning threw to Decker last week against Cleveland: high in the back of the end zone where only his receiver could catch it.
“That was probably the limit right there,” Manning said. “But I’ve seen him in practice. He can jump. He can really elevate. It’s hard to throw it over his head, I’ll say that.”
The Thomas touchdown made it 28-3 and the celebration was on. The only trip the Broncos will have to make on their road to a championship would be to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. They’ll open the playoffs at home Jan. 12 against Baltimore, Cincinnati or Manning’s old team, the Colts.
Coach John Fox, in search of his second trip to the Super Bowl, won his 100th career game. Thomas and linebacker Wesley Woodyard congratulated him with a big splash of orange Gatorade at the end.
“It’s an accomplishment, but it’s something that was a lot of people’s work. It wasn’t one guy,” Fox said.
Nor would Manning take all the credit for all he’s accomplished in this, a comeback season in which he didn’t know what to expect.
This marked his 73rd three-touchdown game, surpassing the record held by Brett Favre. Manning closed the regular season only 41 yards short of his career high.
“It’s been a gratifying regular season,” Manning said. “I will admit that. It is certainly more than I expected. I’m grateful and humble for it.”
On the other end of the spectrum are the Chiefs, who, like the Broncos, had five Pro Bowlers on their roster, but finished with 119 yards of offense and wrapped up the first pick in next year’s draft.
Coach Romeo Crennel watched the game from the sideline, leaning on a crutch, after having his knee drained of fluid earlier in the week. Many in Kansas City expect him to be unemployed soon.
“I told him it’s been a long one,” Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith said about his postgame conversation with Crennel. “Sorry it didn’t turn out the way (we wanted). I have faith in you and that’s all that matters.”
The Broncos swept their division games for the first time since 1998 — the last time they won the Super Bowl.
John Elway retired after that one. Now, he’s back, running Denver’s front office, and he signed Manning with only one goal in mind: a third Lombardi Trophy.
For a brief glimmer, this could have been a game. The Broncos led 7-0 when Ronnie Hillman fumbled and Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers picked it up and was sprinting toward the end zone.
Manning cut off the Flowers return, allowing tight end Joel Dreessen to drag down Flowers at the 12. The Chiefs settled for a field goal and the Broncos scored the next 31 points.
Notes: Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles had 53 yards to finish the season with 1,509. ... Broncos FS Rahim Moore got his first career sack and Von Miller had one to bring his season total to 18½. ... Hillman wasn’t seen against after his fumble. Lance Ball replaced him as Knowshon Moreno’s backup and led the team with 66 yards on 15 carries.