Peyton Manning got to have his moment in the first half.
But beyond the greatest touchdown-thrower in the history of the NFL, the Broncos are also building a defense that might give him a chance to add some more hardware to his trophy case as well.
While the night will be remembered for Manning breaking Brett Favre’s record for career touchdown passes, it was also a staunch defense that helped the Broncos to a 42-17 win over the 49ers.
A pass-rush that was augmented by the addition of DeMarcus Ware and the return of Von Miller has energized a group that pestered the 49ers throughout the night.
Both had sacks in the first half, extending their own personal streaks. The team combined to sack 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times on the night, with Ware getting three of them.
Ware’s second of the night moved him into 15th place on the all-time list, with Hall of Famers Derrick Thomas and Rickey Jackson easily within his grasp this year.
It also marked five straight games with at least one sack for Miller, the third time in his career he’s had such a hot streak.
But the Broncos did a solid job against the 49ers across the board. Frank Gore was limited to 20 yards on nine carries (only partially because the score was out of hand early), and the pass coverage was good throughout the night. Cornerback Aqib Talib gets the money and the attention, but fellow cornerback Chris Harris might be playing as well or better this year.
The night belonged to Manning, but having some balance on the other side of the ball might help him have a shot at another title.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1.The 49ers have problems, which go beyond the coach-front office drama which has threatened to obscure their season.
They’re simply running out of parts on defense, playing with a skeleton crew that was without a pair of Pro Bowl inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, pass-rushing threat Aldon Smith and several others.
Manning was going to get his record regardless, but the 49ers don’t have the personnel remaining to play the kind of defense they’ve become accustomed to.
Getting Smith back — perhaps sooner rather than later — will mean a great deal, but there’s more wrong with this defense than one man can fix.
2. Manning is the quarterback, but John Fox is still the coach, so you know all that dangerous throwing stuff makes him nervous.
So it must have pleased him to see running back Ronnie Hillman run for a pair of scores (thankfully after Manning broke the record).
Hillman has shown himself to be more than just a change-of-pace back, running with good power inside. With Montee Ball on the shelf with a groin injury, he’s going to get plenty of chances, and he made the most of them Sunday.
3. The 49ers have been able to withstand offensive line injuries, but this next-man-up thing is getting ridiculous.
Losing center Daniel Kilgore to an apparent broken leg/ankle (trainers don’t break out the air cast for no reason) in the third quarter was a blow. His replacement, rookie Dillon Farrell, limped off the game in the fourth quarter, but he was able to return.
They drafted Southern Cal center Marcus Martin in the third round this year, and clearly hope he could develop there for the long term. But they had just developed Kilgore to replace Jonathan Goodwin, and gave him a contract extension.
They were able to get through without right tackle Anthony Davis since they had Jonathan Martin on hand, but with Mike Iupati out with a concussion, they’re stretched thin. Martin had to go in at guard, when Looney shifted inside to be the third center of the night during Farrell’s absence.
4. The Broncos sent out a collection of quotes from many of the quarterbacks Manning passed tonight, one of whom has some unfinished business.
“Congratulations, Peyton on your touchdown record, a great achievement,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’ll see you in a few weeks.”
The Broncos go to New England on Nov. 2.
Brady has a meager 372 career passing touchdowns.
5. As impressive as Manning’s record-setting performance was, watching the reactions on the sidelines before and after the record tell you plenty about him as well.
When he finally broke the record in the second quarter, his teammates gleefully played monkey-in-the-middle with the ball, leaving Manning looking flustered for a moment before they let him have it back.
He’s the resident prankster, but the fact they were willing to mess with him a bit speaks to the respect they have for him.
But his reaction to the record-tying touchdown might have been the perfect Manning moment.
While others were celebrating, Manning was on the sideline studying photos of the 49ers defense, trying to find his next advantage.
It’s the kind of work he’s always put in, and much of the reason he was able to break the record.