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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (Associated Press)

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning

(Associated Press)

MacLeod: Peyton Manning enhances argument that he is best ever Add to ...

Peyton Manning started off the year lobbing an NFL record seven touchdown passes against defending National Football League champion Baltimore Ravens.

It was delicious foreshadowing for the sublime quarterback, who would never let up when it came to tossing touchdowns.

The 37-year-old, whose missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing neck surgery, tossed four TD passes during Denver’s 37-13 dismantling of the Houston Texans, including a 25-yard strike to Julius Thomas in the fourth quarter.

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That perfect pitch gave Manning 51 touchdown strikes on the season to break Tom Brady’s single-season record that he established in 2007.

And Manning still has one more regular season game in which to embellish the record.

The performance has renewed talk about Manning being the greatest quarterback who has ever strapped on a chin strap.

"I think this kind of stamps his greatness," said Denver receiver Eric Decker. "Especially when you look at where he was two years ago, where he's at now, the work ethic that allowed him to get here."

Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said it is amazing that Manning is doing what he is doing in his 16th season where many players are already collecting their NFL pensions.

With the Broncos comfortably ahead 30-13 with less than seven minutes remaining, there was talk on the Broncos sideline to running the ball and winding down the clock.

Then Adam Gase, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator looked at Manning and said: “Just go play.”

The playoff picture around the NFL in Week 16 became a little clearer and the celebration was perhaps the most heartfelt in Charlotte where Cam Newton engineered a late touchdown drive to lead the Carolina Panthers to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints.

With the win, the Panthers (11-4) clinched their first playoff berth since 2008, an achievement not too many of their fans were anticipating back in September when Carolina dropped a game to the Buffalo Bills to see their record dip to 0-2.

Newton’s game-winning drive began on the Carolina 35 and it did not look promising with the team having used all of its timeouts and without Steve Smith, the Panthers best wide receiver, who was in the locker room nursing a sore knee.

“He just said, ‘Let’s get it done,’ ” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said of Newton. “He went into his focus mode. He wasn’t the jovial self that he can sometimes be.”

What a difference a week can make in the tumultuous quarterbacking life of Tony Romo.

Pilloried by the press after his epic meltdown last weekend against the Green Bay Packers, Romo came out smelling like roses on Sunday as he tossed a 10-yard TD pass to DeMarco Murray on fourth down that gave the Cowboys a 24-23 win over the Washington Redskins.

With the win the Cowboys (8-7) have set up a winner take all regular-season finale this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title, and the pressure will be on Dallas coach Jason Garrett.

Ed Werder of ESPN.com is reporting that Garrett and his entire coaching staff will be fired unless the Cowboys prevail and make the post-season.

And the Eagles served notice in convincing fashion that they should be ready, crunching the Chicago Bears 54-11 in a game that Philadelphia could have rested some of their key players, but didn’t.

With both the Packers and the Detroit Lions losing earlier in the day, the Bears knew before the opening kickoff that they could clinch the NFC North with a victory and they still served up a stinker.

Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler “could sustain nothing” in the setback although the Bears playoff hopes remain alive.

Chicago can still chinch the division with a victory over the Packers on Sunday.

The Globe’s Robert MacLeod curates the best of sports on the web most weekday mornings


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