The undermanned 49ers defense couldn't stop Peyton Manning on his record-setting night.
Manning broke Brett Favre's all-time touchdown pass record in the first half, slinging three TD passes to break the record at 509. He went on to throw one more in the third quarter, before being taken out of the 42-17 laugher with a quarter remaining.
Manning finished with 318 yards completing 22 of 26 throws. Receiver Demarius Thomas, his favorite target, had 171 receiving yards and two scores, including the 40-yarder in the third.
"He was playing at the highest level. Real excellence," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And in all phases the Broncos were on their game, especially Peyton. Congratulations to him for breaking the record."
Colin Kaepernick was off to a good start, bringing the 49ers to within 11 points at the end of the first half with a touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson. But his 263-yard night wasn't enough to overcome Manning and his juggernaut offense.
Down 21-10 in the third quarter, Kaepernick threw an interception to Aqib Talib. One play later, Manning hit Thomas for the long TD against corner Perrish Cox. And after a three-and-out from San Francisco, Manning orchestrated a three-play scoring drive that culminated in Ronnie Hillman's 37-yard touchdown run. Denver scored 14 points in 48 seconds on offense to increase the lead from 11 to 25 and didn't look back.
San Francisco entered the game with the league's No. 2 ranked defense despite the absences of Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. But Sunday night they were tasked to play Manning without seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis. Instead, it was rookie third-round Chris Borland making his first career start. And at cornerback, the team got back Tramaine Brock, who was beaten for a 39-yard touchdown to Wes Welker in the first quarter. He was also in coverage on Manning's record breaker to Thomas in the second.
"Other quarterbacks make plays too, but it’s Peyton Manning," Brock said. "He always makes those plays."
The 49ers were thinned at cornerback coming into the game. Two regulars, Chris Culliver and rookie nickel back Jimmie Ward, were out with a hamstring and quad injury, respectively. During the game, they lost reserve Chris Cook to a hamstring strain, forcing them to finish with just three healthy cornerbacks.
Harbaugh's team will return home to the Bay Area for their bye week, which is coming at a good time. Willis said he believes he will be back to play in the next game against the Rams Nov. 2. And the bye also gives all-pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman another week to prepare for his eventual return to practice.
Smith might have his suspension shortened, according to a report noting there's a chance he could be back to rushing the passer against St. Louis.
"It’s a tough loss," safety Antoine Bethea said. "But at the end of the day...we have a bye week. We come back and we have another divisional game. That will be a perfect time to get back on track."
Kaepernick's night got off to a rocky start, but he was staging a fine performance before things got out of control in the second half following his interception.
He completed 13 of 21 passes for 189 yards in the first half, but was hampered by four drops from receivers, and he also threw two passes away.
The 49ers' night offensively started with a missed 51-yard field goal on their second drive after the Broncos had already scored their first touchdown. Denver would score again, and San Francisco would have an opportunity to cut the 14-point lead in half in the second quarter.
But on a third-and-goal play from the 4-yard line, Anquan Boldin uncharacteristically dropped an easy touchdown pass, forcing the 49ers to settle for a field goal for their first points of the game.
After Manning broke the record to make it 21-3 on an eight-yard pass to Thomas, Kaepernick led an impressive 7-play, 80-yard scoring drive inside the final three minutes that ended in Johnson's 4-yard touchdown catch. For the second straight week, San Francisco scored a touchdown inside the final minute of the first half after being down by double digits. Despite allowing 21 points to Manning and struggling to finish their drives, a comeback appeared to be within reach down 11 points heading to the locker room.
But after the third-quarter sequence that went: Denver touchdown, interception, Denver touchdown, the lopsided game had been decided. To add injury to insult, starting center Daniel Kilgore could be done for the season after suffering a broken ankle in the third quarter.
The lone highlight of the second half was backup QB Blaine Gabbert's 20-yard touchdown throw to Bruce Ellington in garbage time. It was Ellington's first career TD. Rookie linebackers Borland and Aaron Lynch also registered their first career sacks.
With the loss, the 49ers fall to 4-3, two games behind first-place Arizona, who won in Oakland Sunday. Following the bye, they have two of three on the road (New Orleans, New York Giants) before the favorable portion of their schedule comes at the end of the season.
San Francisco plays four of their final six games at home. Over that span, they will have to get on a plane just once. Their Week 14 game is a short trip up 880 to play the Raiders. They fallow that game with a trip to Seattle.
Only two of the 49ers' remaining nine opponents have winning records, San Diego and Arizona, and they play those teams in Week 16 and 17 at home to close out their regular season schedule. To this point, San Francisco has played all four of the NFL's one-loss teams (Dallas, Arizona, Philadelphia, Denver) and are 2-2 against them. The combined record of teams they have played is 29-15. Their remaining schedule is a combined 25-32.
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