Englewood, Colo. — The last time the Denver Broncos visited Foxborough, they blew a 24-0 halftime lead over Tom Brady & Co. This time around, they'll bring a much improved defense to New England along with — get this — a better quarterback.
Although he's not piling up the statistics at quite the gaudy rate he did during his record-shattering 2013 season, Peyton Manning is more accurate, efficient and effective at age 38 than he was at 37.
Or 27, for that matter.
"He's more comfortable. That's what it is. He's just gotten more and more comfortable," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "I mean, the game slowed down for him a long time ago. We've got the weapons, too. You put those weapons with Manning and all he has to do is put the ball out there."
Which Manning is doing better than ever:
■He's completing 69 percent of his passes this season, up from 68.3 a year ago.
■His passer rating is an NFL-best 119.0, up from 115.1.
■And he's gaining an NFL-high 8.5 yards per pass, up from 8.3.
If he keeps this up, he'll set career highs for completion percentage and TD-to-interception ratio (7.3) while challenging the career-high 121.1 passer rating he set in 2004.
"Maybe when I'm his age, I'll be playing as well as that," cracked Brady, who's 37 and playing pretty darn good himself nowadays.
Manning didn't take offense to his old friend calling him a geezer.
"That's the cold, hard facts," Manning said.
Despite their ages, Manning and Brady both are still at their peak. Each threw for 14 touchdowns in October, marking the first time in NFL history that two QBs have had that many TD passes in a month.
When they meet for Manning vs. Brady XVI on Sunday afternoon, neither will rely on the deep ball like they could earlier in their respective careers. But Manning's strength is back to his pre-neck surgery days of 2010 and he is flashing the downfield pass more than he ever has since joining the Broncos in 2012.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday called Manning "the best quarterback that I've coached against" and said he sees "no weaknesses in his game."
Manning returned the compliments, calling Belichick and Brady a "double whammy," one that's beaten him 10 times in 15 tries.
Of course, Manning won the last meeting, 26-16 in the AFC championship in Denver in January, the second time in three tries he's beaten Brady for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
When Manning arrived in Denver in 2012 following his tearful goodbye from the Colts, his future was as cloudy as a Rocky Mountain snowstorm. But he's been even better ever since trading the horse shoe on his helmet for the orange-mane mustang.
He's averaged 2.84 touchdown tosses in his 39 regular-season games with the Broncos after averaging 1.91 per game during his 13 seasons in Indy before missing all of 2011 following neck fusion surgery.
And his .821 winning percentage in Denver (32-7) is better than his .677 mark (141-67) with the Colts.
Manning's figures an ever-growing familiarity with coach John Fox's system, offensive coordinator Adam Gase's style and his teammates is the root of his resurgence.
"I feel like I've gotten a little better each year than I was the year before due to a little more comfort in this new culture, learning Coach Fox's philosophies and it's the second year under Adam, and learning the new teammates," Manning said.
"So I would say that is really all I have tried to focus on. I just haven't made comparisons to the years I didn't play here and I do think as you get more comfortable with your surroundings and the players you are playing with, hopefully that leads to improved play on the field."
RGIII's return based on practice
Robert Griffin III will make his return Sunday "if he shows he can handle the workload" in practices over the next two days, according to Washington coach Jay Gruden.
In a text message Wednesday night to the Associated Press, Gruden clarified Griffin's situation. The coach said he told the team earlier in the day that the coaches were going to "work Robert in with the first team but be ready for whoever" the quarterback is, either Griffin or Colt McCoy.
Gruden said Griffin will start "if he shows he can handle the workload tomorrow and Friday. If any soreness reoccurs or his isn't comfortable" then McCoy will start.
Wednesday was the first practice in which Griffin's participation was listed as full since he dislocated his left ankle in Week 2, yet Gruden's overall message remained the same: Griffin still needs to show a comfort level in the huddle and a mental command of the offense to get back on the field.
"Last week was more of a 'introducing' him. This week's more about getting him more reps with the 1s, a little bit more, and seeing how he handles it," Gruden told reporters after practice. "The doctors will continue to monitor him through each drill, through each movement, see how he's doing, then I'll have to decide whether he's ready from a mental quarterback standpoint."
Brent back on the field
Dallas defensive tackle Josh Brent has returned to the practice field for the first time since his drunken-driving crash that killed teammate Jerry Brown in 2012.
Brent did light work on the side Wednesday, the first day he was eligible to practice because of NFL restrictions related to his 10-game suspension over an intoxication manslaughter conviction in January.
The first possible game for Brent is Nov. 23 at the New York Giants, but coach Jason Garrett hasn't said when Brent might be ready to play.
Brent's last game was Dec. 2, 2012, against Philadelphia, six days before the fatal crash in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail after a 10-year prison term was suspended.
Chargers RB cleared
Chargers running back Donald Brown has been cleared to return to practice after missing three games with a concussion.
Brown practiced Wednesday for the first time since being injured in a victory against the New York Jets on Oct. 5.
"It's something you don't want to mess with. You never wish it on everybody," Brown said. "The tough part is there's no treatment for it, it's just time. During the season, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, I had to sit out three games."
Brown returns as the Chargers (5-3) are trying to end a two-game losing streak.
They visit Miami on Sunday, where the Chargers are 0-7 since their epic overtime playoff victory following the 1981 season.