DENVER – The 49ers got into an air battle with Peyton Manning on Sunday, and the results were predictably ugly for the visiting team.
After the Broncos quarterback threw two quick touchdown passes in the the first quarter, the only suspense was whether he'd get a third – and record-breaking – touchdown before the half.
It came on an eight-yard pass at the pylon to receiver Demaryius Thomas, and like most of Manning's throws in Denver's 42-17 win, this one seemed easy. While preparing for Manning, 49ers coaches and players alike said the veteran quarterback's strength was analyzing the opposing defense and identifying weaknesses.
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That's exactly what Manning did, whether it was finding Thomas, his top wide receiver, matched against inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite for a 31-yard gain or baiting young 49ers safety Eric Reid on a pump fake that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown to Wes Welker.
“I just got caught making a mistake and they capitalized on it,” Reid said. “That's the kind of quarterback he is. If you make a mistake, it will cost you. And it cost us.”
Touchdown pass No. 509, which put Manning ahead of Brett Favre in the record book, went to Thomas. So did No. 510, a 40-yard bomb that immediately followed an interception by the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick. Thomas finished with eight catches for 171 yards while Manning finished just short of perfection with a 157.2 passer rating.
“He's one of the greats, and it certainly was on display tonight,” Jim Harbaugh said of Manning. “I congratulate him. It was a great performance in a great career.”
The loss drops the 49ers (4-3) 1 ½ games behind the division-leading Cardinals (5-1), who beat the Raiders on Sunday.
Entering the game, the 49ers under Harbaugh had been excellent on the road, nearly unbeatable in the month of October and dangerous when they were underdogs, as they were against the Broncos. This time, however, Harbaugh’s team was unable to overcome the disadvantages of playing on a short week, at Denver's mile-high altitude and without several regular starters.
On defense, San Francisco was missing linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Chris Culliver and safety Jimmie Ward as well as linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, who have not played this year. Another cornerback, Chris Cook, left the game with a hamstring injury.
“They had some injuries that put some pressure on their defense,” Manning said after the game. “And we were able to take advantage of that tonight.”
On offense, left guard Mike Iupati was held out after suffering a concussion last week while center Daniel Kilgore suffered an fractured leg and had to be carted off the field.
Iupati, the 49ers' big pulling guard, typically is the spear point of their rushing attack, and his absence is one of the reasons the 49ers opened the game favoring wide receivers and the passing game instead of fullbacks, tight ends and the running attack.
They doubled down on the strategy when they fell behind by 14 points. The team used four and five receivers throughout the contest, and fullback Bruce Miller played scant snaps as was the case in early season losses against Chicago and Arizona.
The pass-heavy approach worked on the team's final drive of the first half, which went 80 yards in seven plays.
It included three passes for 45 yards to wideout Stevie Johnson, who scored a four-yard touchdown on a catch in the back of the end zone. Johnson ended the half with four catches for 76 yards.
But the 49ers made too many mistakes to sustain the strategy.
A would-be touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin in the second quarter, for example, slipped out of the receiver's hands, one of four 49ers dropped passes in the first half. In the second, the Broncos made adjustments against Johnson, and Kaepernick's third-quarter pass to him was intercepted.
The 49ers committed six penalties for 62 yards and gave up six sacks, a season high.
Frank Gore, who rushed only nine times for 20 yards, said the game plan was to strike fast against the Broncos. Instead it was the other way around, and the 49ers had to play catchup almost immediately.
Gore got an early jump on the team's bye week by not playing in the fourth quarter. Still, he said he had faith that the 49ers can regain the momentum they lost Sunday when they return from their bye.
“We got a great team,” he said. “We've got a bunch of great guys in the locker room. They play hard, and we'll bounce back. ... When everybody gets back, we’ll be fine.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.