Aug 26, 2012 7:38 PM by sportsillustrated.cnn.com
DENVER - Peyton Manning was magnificent in his final regular-season tuneup Sunday, throwing his first two touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos in a 29-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Manning completed 10 of 12 passes for 122 yards, including TD tosses of 10 and 5 yards to Eric Decker , and was nearly perfect. The two misses were a dropped pass by Joel Dreessen and an errant pass to Brandon Stokley , who was held on the play but didn't draw the flag.
After managing one TD to go with four turnovers in his first seven possessions this preseason, Manning drove the Broncos (1-2) to scores on all three of his possessions, then put on his visor with 46 seconds left in the first quarter after staking Denver to a 17-0 lead.
Alex Smith threw a 49-yard TD pass and David Akers kicked five field goals for the Niners (2-1), who outscored the Broncos' backups 19-0 in the second half but lost wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. to an ankle injury early in the second half.
For the second straight week, the Broncos' backups were awful. In blowing a 24-10 halftime lead, they've been outscored 40-0 after halftime in the last two games.
Denver's first drive stalled when the replacement officials failed to whistle cornerback Carlos Rogers for a blatant hold on a third-down pass to Stokley, and the Broncos settled for Matt Prater 's 53-yard field goal.
Manning was money after that.
He completed all six of his passes for 83 yards on a long drive that ended with his first touchdown throw in orange and blue, a 10-yard strike to Decker, who beat Rogers over the middle.
The highlight of drive was a 38-yard pass to running back Lance Ball , who left the game with a rib injury. Manning was blasted by linebacker Parys Haralson in the chest right as he released his longest pass of the preseason. Manning bounced right up, raced downfield, lined up in the no-huddle and hit running back Willis McGahee for 14 yards to the San Francisco 12.
It was the second time Manning, who missed all of last season with a neck injury that required four operations, had been hit hard in the preseason, and both times he responded with a big pass for the first down.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard recovered a fumbled snap for the Broncos (No. 10 in the AP Pro 32) at the San Francisco 24, and four plays later, Manning found Decker wide open by the back left pylon for his second touchdown and a 17-0 lead over the 49ers (No. 4).
The Broncos' onside kick backfired when Matthew Willis touched the ball about a yard early, and Smith found tight end Vernon Davis all alone along the left sideline for a 49-yard score. Then, Hanie underthrew Decker and former Broncos cornerback Perrish Cox intercepted at midfield. That led to Akers' first field goal, from 33 yards out.
Hanie threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dreessen that made it 24-10 at halftime.
Smith finished 5 of 7 for 69 yards, but his pocket of protection was much better than it had been during the preseason. He was sacked just once.
San Francisco's ground game, which had gained an NFL-best 378 yards through the first two weeks of the preseason, was stymied by the Broncos, who had allowed the Seattle Seahawks to rush for 228 yards a week earlier.
With LaMichael James (left ankle) and Brandon Jacobs (left knee) sitting this one out, the 49ers were held to 14 yards on nine first-half carries, including two runs for minus-4 yards by Frank Gore .
That all changed after halftime as the Niners finished with 139 yards rushing.
Anthony Dixon had a 26-yard TD run and Akers kicked field goals of 45, 21, 32 and 44 yards. The 32-yarder came after a nearly 5-minute delay while officials tried to figure out the line of scrimmage following a confusing sequence that included a challenge that wasn't allowable and a 15-yard penalty flag that was picked up. During that time, the officiating crew huddled with an NFL representative on the sideline.
Notes: Manning's passer rating of 148.6 was nearly 100 points higher than what it was (48.8) in the first two preseason games. ... Broncos rookie RB Ronnie Hillman made his preseason debut after dealing with a pulled right hamstring and gained 29 yards on 10 carries.