December 22, 2013 Updated: December 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm
HOUSTON — The football was not in his locker.
It was worth checking, anyway. Alas, one hour after he dropped a 25-yard handoff into the oversized mitts of Julius Thomas, the 51st touchdown pass of the ultimate quarterback's historic season, only three things remained in his aluminum cubby.
His nameplate — Peyton Manning, 18 — later stripped off and tossed in a garbage bin as the Broncos left the premises. A vanity mirror, to assist in tying the perfect knot in his necktie. A clothes hanger, collected and then kept, for memory's sake, by the Reliant Stadium janitorial staff.
But the football?
"Hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back when somebody throws for more," Manning said after the Broncos' 37-13 win against the Texans.
These footballs are valuable, coveted commodities. They are the footballs of records, and Manning set another one Sunday under the open roof of Reliant Stadium:
Fifty-one touchdown passes, an NFL record. Nobody's thrown more, not in a single season.
That's one more than nemesis and respected friend Tom Brady in 2007. That's two more than Manning's previous career-high, which had set the record in 2004.
That's 51 footballs of record to account for. They all look the same, made by Wilson, with the scribbled autograph of Roger Goodell, Commissioner.
But he's thrown them for touchdowns in 51 different ways. He started with seven touchdowns against Baltimore in the season opener, tying another NFL record, and capped it off, at least until next week at Oakland, with four touchdowns Sunday.
Manning described No. 51 like a golfer might describe the hole where he made eagle.
"We had Julius out wide, split by himself, four receivers to the other side. Obviously it makes the defense have a discussion. You've got a couple receivers over there, (so) you've got to put your corners over there. (And) put a linebacker on Julius. That's always a tough matchup for any linebacker, as athletic as he is."
No. 18 suggested No. 51 is going to the Hall of Fame. The man who caught No. 51 suggested he was unaware it was No. 51.
After catching the football, Thomas tumbled into a photographer. He rose, dropped the football and danced.
"I come back to the sidelines and I'm sitting down on the bench and somebody says, 'That was the one!' I said, Oh,'" Thomas said. "Maybe I shouldn't have just dropped it so carelessly. Maybe I should have kept it."
"It wouldn't surprise me if Julius would have handed the ball to some babe up in the stands and tried to get her phone number in exchange for the ball," Manning cracked.
Thanks to the Chiefs' loss Sunday, the Broncos clinched the AFC West title for the third-straight season. They will have a first-round bye for the playoffs, then at least one game at home, where Manning has thrown 27 of his 51 touchdown footballs.
Thanks to Manning, the Hall of Fame will have a new football, at least until some young buck, or Manning next season, comes along and breaks the record again.
"That was a spectacular throw," vice president of football operations John Elway said outside the locker room. "The other 50 were, too."
The other 50 went to Demaryius Thomas (12 times), Julius Thomas (11 times), Eric Decker (10), Wes Welker (10), Andre Caldwell (three), Knowshon Moreno (two), Joel Dreessen (one) and Jacob Tamme (one).
He's thrown 15 in December, and, yes, more when the temperature is below 40 degrees (eight) than when the temperature is above 80 degrees (seven). He's thrown 11 in first quarters, 14 in second quarters, 12 in third quarters and 14 in fourth quarters.
He's thrown them all less than two years after the Broncos took a chance on a 36-year-old coming off four neck surgeries. Manning now is 37 and completed his 37th touchdown pass back in Week 11, a 41-yard beauty to Decker at Kansas City.
"I wasn't exactly positive (Manning would perform this way). But I was very hopeful. Let's put it that way," Elway said. "If anybody can do it - come back - it was 18. And he's proving me right."
As soon as Julius Thomas left No. 51 on the turf, Decker scooped it up. He stuck it under his jersey for safekeeping.
"I did not know that was 51," offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "When you're in the moment. ."
In the moment, it's easy to stress over the penalties, of which there were eight on Denver and, especially, the knee injury to Von Miller. His status is uncertain, but the star linebacker hit the turf without anyone hitting his knee. That's never good.
But it's also wise to live in, soak in, the moment. As his record-setting season has moved forward, we've seen Manning do more and more of that.
"This is the second chapter of my career," he said.
Two weeks ago, the NFL asked for Matt Prater's cleats after he kicked a record-setting 64-yard field goal. Prater offered his jersey, preferring to keep his familiar boots until after the season.
The football used for Manning's record-setting touchdown belongs to him, but it's headed to the Hall of Fame. He hopes to one day get it back.
These are footballs of records, 51 in all.