The best part of Peyton Manning’s big day was getting to share the spotlight with some of his best friends.
Manning joined Brett Favre in the NFL’s most exclusive of clubs with his 500th touchdown toss Sunday when the Denver Broncos handed the Arizona Cardinals their first loss, 41-20.
"Football is the ultimate team game, and so I guess one man has to accept it and I really accept it on behalf of a lot of coaches and teammates," Manning said.
Manning threw for 479 yards and four TDs, moving him within five of Favre’s record 508.
After getting his touchstone touchdown — a 7-yard dart to tight end Julius Thomas — out of the way early, Manning helped Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker make history, too.
Demaryius Thomas set a franchise record with 226 yards on eight catches, beating Shannon Sharpe’s mark of 214 yards set against Kansas City in 2002.
Welker’s seven receptions moved him past Rod Smith for the most catches in NFL history by an undrafted player. He has 854, five more than Smith caught for Denver between 1995-2006.
"I still can’t believe he was undrafted because that man can play some ball," Demaryius Thomas said.
Welker’s record-breaker came on the last play on the first half, something Manning called "kind of a ha-ha moment for scouting, for not drafting him. So, whoever was a general manager in 2004, those guys ought to send him an apology letter."
Demaryius Thomas caught touchdown passes of 31 and 86 yards — and his 77-yard TD was nullified on a chop block by Julius Thomas that sent defensive end Calais Campbell from the game with a right knee injury.
Left tackle Ryan Clady was engaged with Campbell and was whistled for the flag. But it was the Pro Bowl tight end who crashed low into Campbell and drew the wrath of Arizona coach Bruce Arians.
"I’ve been coaching for 37 years, it’s the dirtiest play I’ve seen," Arians fumed. "It was a flat chop block and put him out of the game. I know John Fox, great coach and great guy. Somebody has got to answer to that. A fine isn’t going to do it, when he’s going to miss three or four weeks, on a blatant chop block."
Campbell’s strained MCL added to a miserable afternoon in which the Cardinals (3-1) surrendered 568 yards, the most they’ve allowed since 1973, and saw fill-in quarterback Drew Stanton leave with a concussion.
Manning’s 500th TD throw came in his 244th career regular-season game, 49 fewer games than it took Favre. It came against two of his mentors: Arians, who was his first QB coach in 1998, and Cardinals assistant head coach Tom Moore, who was his offensive coordinator during his 13 seasons in Indy.
"I give both of those men a lot of credit for helping me improve as a quarterback," Manning said.
Footballs from Manning’s milestone TDs usually end up in his receiver’s trophy cases, but he kept this one. "I’ll probably keep it in a bag somewhere," said Manning, adding that he’s sure his 3-year-old boy will get to it soon and play with it in the mud.
Among Manning’s two interceptions was one by Campbell, the 300-pound defensive end who snatched his screen pass to a wide-open Montee Ball and rumbled to the 5 before Manning tripped him up.
"Don’t give me a full tackle for that," Manning said. "Give me like a half. I barely grazed his leg."
Ellington took it in from there to pull Arizona to 14-13.
Manning saw cornerback Antonio Cromartie lined up 1 on 1 on Demaryius Thomas and hit his big receiver in stride at the 40. Cromartie crumpled to the grass and Thomas sped into the end zone with an 86-yard score that gave Denver a 21-13 halftime lead.
Although only six of the 14 passes Manning threw at Cromartie were completed, those half dozen grabs covered 199 yards.
"It’s by far the worst game of my career," Cromartie said. "But it’s one game out of the season. We’ve got 12 more games."
Stanton was 11 for 26 for 118 yards before being knocked from the game on a hard hit by Von Miller in the third quarter.
On his third series, Logan Thomas threaded a pass through linebacker Nate Irving’s grasp and into the arms of running back Andre Ellington for a stunning 81-yard score that made it 24-20.
That ended up being Thomas’ only completion in eight attempts.
Brandon McManus, whose solid start convinced the Broncos they should release the suspended Matt Prater, made it 27-20 when his 41-yard field goal bounced off the left post and through the uprights.
NOTES: Broncos LB Danny Trevathan made his 2014 debut after breaking his left leg in the preseason. He led the Broncos with seven tackles, six solo. … Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson sprained his left ankle. … With Ball (groin) out, Juwan Thompson capped the scoring with his first NFL TD, an 8-yard run.