DENVER — Mark Miller didn’t wait for Peyton Manning to sign with the Denver Broncos before he ordered a customized No. 18 jersey.
“I wanted to be the first person to welcome Peyton as part of the team,” Miller, a lifelong Broncos fan from Colorado Springs, Colo., said as he and his friends tailgated before Sunday night’s game against the Saints.
Miller won’t be the last.
Since Manning signed his a free agent with the Broncos on March 20 following his release after 14 years with Indianapolis, Manning jerseys, T-shirts and caps have been the No. 1 seller among NFL merchandise. There were enough Orange Crush orange jerseys on display here Sunday to fill a small warehouse.
No doubt Manning moved some more merchandise Sunday after a masterful performance in carving up his hometown team, 34-14.
At age 36 and coming off neck surgery that forced him to miss all of last season — and forced the Colts to decide to go with Andrew Luck — Manning may not have the arm strength he once possessed. And he never claimed to be mobile.
He might not even be the best quarterback in his family anymore. Eli, after leading the New York Giants past Dallas earlier Sunday, is getting support as the best in the league these days.
But few will argue about who’s the smartest.
“He is a football genius,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said last week.
Sunday night, Vitt got a front-row validation of his opinion.
After the Saints actually forced a three-and-out on the game’s opening series, Manning showed his trademark patience in guiding Denver on a 98-yard touchdown drive.
The Broncos set things up with four straight carries by Willis McGahee before Manning got Demaryius Thomas one-on-one on a deep middle route for 41 yards. A third-and-six out route to Jacob Tamme netted just enough for the first down. And finally, Manning caught the Saints in a blitz with a flip in traffic to McGahee, who was ruled down inside the 1. McGahee got the touchdown on the next play.
Three passes. Three precisely correct decisions by Manning.
The man just doesn’t make bad ones.
It hardly seems fair that the Saints defense had to go against Manning after the Broncos had a bye week. Manning is now 10-4 with extra time in his career, including the last seven in a row.
Manning finished Sunday night 22 of 30 for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
The one to Eric Decker in the second quarter did have the help of Jabari Greer slipping.
But the one to Thomas, which capped a 93-yard drive to start the second half, was placed so precisely, just inside the pylon, that Johnny Patrick had no chance to defend it. All Thomas had to do was go up for it.
In a world where young turk QBs are the rage in the NFL, it’s worth noting that Manning went into the week ranked No. 2 in the league’s quarterback ratings.
But Manning is not so much about stats as winning another Super Bowl. At 4-3, but with an easy schedule remaining, the Broncos are no worse than the second-best team in the AFC behind Houston.
Could Super Bowl XLVII against Eli and the Giants, in New Orleans no less be in the offing?
Don’t bet against it.