DENVER — He threw a touchdown pass to a defensive tackle. He converted a third down by dumping the football to a running back already sprawled on his keister. When referees failed to reward him for catching the defense with too many men on the field, he ran down the sideline, called timeout and convinced his coach to throw the red flag for a challenge, which his team won.
All that was left for Peyton Manning to do as the final seconds drained from the Broncos' 31-23 win Sunday was avoid the melee resulting from Bucs coach Greg Schiano ordering his defense to fire off the ball when the quarterback took a knee.
"After the game he came up and told me on the end-of-the-game play, he didn't mean any harm or injury to me, and I appreciated that comment," Manning said.
After witnessing Sunday's performance, the Bucs probably felt like kneeling before Manning.
The legend of the Broncos quarterback grew by another chapter as Manning passed for 242 yards and three touchdowns to help Denver (9-3) win its seventh straight game and clinch the AFC West.
"I give the guy a lot of credit," Bucs safety Ronde Barber said of Manning. "He's the best quarterback of my generation for a reason."
The second straight loss allowed the Falcons to clinch the NFC South and dropped the Bucs (6-6) one game behind Seattle for the final wild card.
Tampa Bay led 10-7 at halftime before Manning capped third-quarter drives with touchdown passes of 8 and 10 yards to Demaryius Thomas.
The Broncos made it 28-10 when Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman was hit by tackle Mitch Unrein as he threw a pass, which was intercepted and returned 26 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Von Miller.
The Bucs battled back on field goals of 50 and 55 yards by Connor Barth and a 5-yard touchdown pass from Freeman to Mike Williams with 2:33 to play. But Denver recovered the ensuing onside kick to end Tampa Bay's comeback hopes.
Manning was composed, confident and in command against a Bucs defense that entered last in the NFL against the pass. He started the game by capping a 65-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown to the 6-foot-4, 291-pound Unrein, who entered the game as a fullback and had not scored a touchdown since ninth grade.
Still, the Bucs led at halftime, 10-7.
That didn't last long. In the second half, Manning took over the game. He converted one third down by dumping a pass to running back Knowshon Moreno, who was sprawled on the turf just in front of the yardsticks near the Bucs bench.
"I can't decide if he was trying to throw that ball there or trying to get rid of it," Barber said. "Either way, that's Peyton Manning.
It was a heck of a play."
The play was so clever, Schiano complimented Manning on the sideline.
"That's the first time I've ever had an (opposing) head coach tell me that was a good play in the middle of the game," Manning said, "so I appreciated the compliment."
Schiano was less than complimentary when Manning caught the Bucs with too many men on the field by using his no-huddle tempo after it appeared they were stopped on third and 1 early in the second quarter.
Officials didn't throw a flag initially, so Manning ran down the sideline, signaled for a timeout, then implored Broncos coach John Fox to throw the challenge flag. He did, and the call was reversed after review.
Schiano argued with officials that Manning never left the field with the Broncos in punt formation.
"The whole bit, the whole operation, I'm not sure of," Schiano said.
Manning's efforts went for naught when the Bucs forced a punt soon after.
For the second straight game, the Bucs never got running back Doug Martin untracked. He was held to 56 yards on 18 carries (3.1-yard average) a week after the Falcons limited him to 50 yards on 21 attempts.
"The reality is when you get hit and throw the pick six, it changes the complexion of the game," Schiano said. "Now we're not able to run the football."
With the Broncos' pass rush free to tee off, Freeman struggled. He finished 18-of-39 for 242 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. While he was only sacked once, Freeman was probably hit more than he had been in any game this season.
"When he had ample time, I thought he played well," Schiano said. "I thought he had control of the game the entire time. The pick six, he had no control over. He got hit."
Schiano drew a scolding from Giants coach Tom Coughlin in Week 2 when he had his defense submarine Eli Manning in the final seconds of the game during the kneel-down. On Sunday, big brother got the same treatment. He was ready for it — the last Manning standing.
"Certainly, you're looking at a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Schiano said of Peyton. "There are reasons why."