CINCINNATI -- The Broncos brass moved mountains of money to make certain Peyton Manning found a home in the Rockies.

The $96 million investment is looking like a bargain.

Let's be clear, though. The biggest free-agent signing in the history of anything, ever, anywhere, hardly is the sole reason Denver is on its way to shutting the AFC West title chase like it was one of Manning's pizza boxes.

More so than in any of his previous wins as a Bronco, Manning needed his supporting cast to help Denver sneak away with a 31-23 win Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The John A. Roebling Bridge spans the Ohio River and lit up the night sky next to Paul Brown Stadium. It is a spectacle.

Manning's career spans four MVP awards, a Super Bowl championship and, at the rate he's going this season, a 12th invitation to the Pro Bowl. It is a spectacle.

Combined, Tony Carter's and Trindon Holliday's careers span 23 NFL games and more short jokes than Ty Lawson, the Nuggets' 5-foot-11 point guard. At their size -- Carter at 5-9, 175 pounds; Holliday at 5-5, 170 -- the fact they can survive in the NFL is a spectacle.

It is true; there's never been a bigger acquisition than the Broncos (5-3) with Manning. But the role players filling in the holes around him also make Denver the fastest riser in the NFL.

Anyone see Holliday after the Broncos' third straight win?

It's a challenge finding the small man with big speed in a locker room bustling with mammoth teammates rushing to get on the flight home. The Bengals couldn't find him, either, on a 105-yard kick return to open the second half. His first career touchdown a) set the Broncos record for longest play; b) set the record for longest play against the Bengals; and c) validated John Fox's decision to trust him again with return duty.

Denver grabbed Holliday off waivers after the Texans released him.

"Week after week, it's been that one block away (from breaking one)," Holliday said.

"Getting that kickoff return was a huge play," Manning said.

Hey, where's Carter? The cornerback's locker was footsteps away from Champ Bailey's but far less crowded. He's not yet a beacon for media interviews. Carter again impressed coaches with his coverage ability, batting away two passes from Andy Dalton and providing capable depth in the secondary.

Denver signed Carter off its practice squad.

"Every opportunity I get," Carter said. "I take it personal."

These aren't the signings that made headlines likes Manning's did, or the types of football heroes who will make headlines when the Broncos coast into the playoffs as division champions. But they are the kind of players who become critical when the big-money guys aren't at the top of their game, or when starters such as Tracy Porter are out.

It's easy to credit John Elway and Co. with luring Manning to town. Also credit the decision-makers with the foresight to notice some of the far-less-acclaimed acquisitions.

Where's Manning? Now that one's easy to track down. He's probably leading another fourth-quarter comeback. Sunday's late charge was his fourth in five wins as a Bronco and the 48th of his career.

"All we are is 5-3," Manning said after passing for 291 yards, three touchdowns and eclipsing Dan Marino's NFL record for comeback wins. "There's nothing beyond that."

Except for, it appears, a roster rounding into form from all angles and with all sizes.