DENVER — Peyton Manning’s right thumbnail was covered with white tape and put under a media microscope upon his return to the football field Wednesday.
The tape didn’t wrap all the way around his thumb, leaving him able to grip the football like normal, and teammates said his throws and hand-offs at practice were unaffected by his injury in his first action since smacking his throwing hand on a defender’s helmet Sunday night.
For the first time, Denver coach John Fox listed his quarterback on the team’s injury report — “Peyton Manning, right thumb, full” — but said he noticed no lingering effects.
Manning, who threw two second-half touchdowns in Denver’s 34-14 win over New Orleans after getting hurt just before halftime, said after practice that his thumb was “sore, but it’s more of an irritant than anything else.”
Manning gets all this scrutiny.
After all, he missed all of last season in Indianapolis with a nerve injury in his neck and now plays in a city that 24 years ago argued about the quality of Halloween candy handed out to trick-or-treaters by a young John Elway.
Now, the discolored right thumbnail on the four-time MVP who’s playing like he’s hungry for a fifth is certainly a big deal in media circles, both traditional and social.
Manning acknowledged he was “probably a little bit lucky” that he banged the nail and not the knuckle of his right thumb on New Orleans defensive end Martez Wilson’s helmet just before absorbing his only hit of the night.
Another half-inch, and all bets would have been off for the rolling Broncos (4-3), who lead the AFC West, are finally hitting their stride behind Manning’s spectacular play and steady leadership and look every bit like a team ready to take off.
Another half-inch and this is rookie Brock Osweiler’s offense. Or Caleb Hanie’s.
“They say it’s a game of inches,” wide receiver Eric Decker said. “Maybe it’s a game of centimeters.”
The league’s leading passer at age 36, Manning is playing better than anyone — the Broncos and their quarterback included — could have hoped for over the season’s first two months.
“Well, certainly, it was a lot of unknown before this season,” Manning said. “I think there still is. This is a new team and nobody knew how this team would form chemistry-wise. I didn’t know what my situation would be. I mentioned early on that I’m feeling my way out. We’re finding out our identity. I think we are still doing that. I think we have it in some places.”
Even though they’re not all the way there yet, Elway, the Broncos’ vice president of football operations, said during his weekly podcast on the team’s website that Denver is coming off its “most complete game of the year.”
“We thought it was going to be a track meet and we’d really have to keep up with them,” Elway said. “The compliment goes to (defensive coordinator) Jack Del Rio, his staff and the defensive players. They really answered the bell.”
Drew Brees was limited to 137 yards through the air until the Saints’ final drive, when he threw for 76 yards with several Broncos backups in the game.
Weakside linebacker Wesley Woodyard, an undrafted fifth-year pro from Kentucky, won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday for a monster game that included 13 tackles (9 solo), a sack, an interception, two pass breakups and a forced fumble — exceeding or matching his career high in every category.
Despite losing linebacker Joe Mays (broken leg), the Broncos could get cornerback Tracy Porter back this week. He’s missed the last two games after experiencing light-headedness and a racing heart — the same symptoms he had before suffering a seizure during training camp.
He returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday and said he hopes to play Sunday at Cincinnati: “It’s a matter of me getting my conditioning back, getting my legs back up under me,” Porter said. “As far as seizure-wise, I don’t have any problem.”
The last time the Broncos visited the Bengals (3-4), Brandon Stokley’s 87-yard “Immaculate Deflection” touchdown catch on a batted pass with 11 seconds left gave Denver a farfetched 12-7 win in the 2009 opener.
“Brandon runs through my mind all the time,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis lamented during a conference call with Denver reporters. “But I wish we had more guys here that were on that team. I think we have about seven guys that were actually in that game.”
Believe it or not, Stokley also has had bad dreams about that play in which he cradled cornerback Leon Hall’s deflection at midfield and raced untouched into the end zone — but not before he headily took an extra couple of precious seconds off the clock by running along the goal line before stepping across for the score.
“I just kind of saw that nobody was behind me chasing me. I saw a guy kind of give up on it. I knew there wasn’t a lot of time left, so I thought, why not try to run some time off?” Stokley said. “And then the next day, I kind of started having nightmares about it. What if I’d have gotten caught? What if I had fumbled? What if somebody would have hit me?
“I think next time I’ll probably just get in the end zone.”
Notes: Manning said that “being from New Orleans, knowing firsthand what hurricanes can do,” his thoughts were with the victims of superstorm Sandy. … Woodyard is one of just nine players to record double-digit tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in a game since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982. … Sunday’s game at Cincinnati snaps a streak of 12 straight games in which the Broncos drew the networks’ top broadcast team, first because of Tim Tebow and then because of Manning.