Peyton Manning didn’t hide his feelings. This one was special, and he simply wasn’t about to dismiss it as just another tuneup.
He’s come too far for that.
"I know how much hard work I’ve put in and how much help I’ve gotten along the way," he said. "I know once we get to Pittsburgh, it’ll be all about the game. I’m not going to be too reflective."
His first preseason appearance with the Broncos was brief and a bit uneven. He hopes to have it ironed out by the opener Sept. 9.
Manning got intercepted near the goal line on the game’s opening possession and watched from the sideline the rest of the way as Denver beat the Chicago Bears 31-3 Thursday night.
All eyes were on Manning and the results were mixed for the four-time MVP. Considering he missed all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck that weakened his throwing arm and led to his tearful farewell from the Indianapolis Colts, it was hardly a surprise.
Manning is trying to show he still has something left with Denver, and all things considered, coach John Fox was impressed.
"He’s going to continue to improve," Fox said. "That’s the whole challenge of our team. That was a good first start, good first outing, and it’s what we do with it from here on out that’s going to count."
On a cool and rainy night, Manning completed 4 of 7 passes for 44 yards, but didn’t have to contend with Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher. He had all the time he needed, too, so it remains to be seen how he’ll handle a big hit.
But even with little pressure, he still was a bit off target against Chicago.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, his pass was broken up by Chicago’s Lance Briggs, and his second was nearly picked off, too. The Bears’ Geno Hayes tipped the ball near midfield, but Jacob Tamme hauled it in for a 12-yard gain to the Chicago 39.
After a short run by Willis McGahee, Manning found Eric Decker on the left for 10 yards. A 19-yarder to Decker a few plays later put the ball on the 14, and the Broncos looked like they were poised to score.
Instead, on third down at the 12, Manning got picked off when Denver’s Brandon Stokley deflected a pass and Major Wright dived for the interception at the 2. Wright then left the game with a hamstring injury that he said was "nothing major," no pun intended.
Manning was finished for the night, too, and that brought the biggest story to a close.
"There’s always a little bit of an unknown, there’s obviously a lot of change," he said. "New team, new players, not ideal weather conditions. There were some different elements for me. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen, it’s hard to predict, but I felt like I had a little rhythm there on offense, things we can build on. … Overall, I thought it was a decent start."
Another big angle never materialized. That was the Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall reunion.
They put up big numbers in Denver and they’re back together after the Bears acquired Marshall from Miami. That blockbuster trade gave Cutler the go-to target he’s lacked since he arrived from the Broncos and sent expectations soaring in Chicago after a disappointing 8-8 finish. But instead of a first look, fans got a rain check.
Cutler warmed up but coach Lovie Smith decided to hold him out, one day after his fiancee Kristin Cavallari gave birth to a boy named Camden Jack.
"It wasn’t really in the plan for Jay to go out there," coach Lovie Smith said. "He’ll get more reps this week."
Running back Matt Forte and Peppers were also in uniform but did not play. Urlacher, meanwhile, wasn’t expected to play after missing time in six practices because of his injured left knee and for personal reasons, and was not on the sideline.
With their star quarterback and running back watching, the Bears managed just 41 yards in the first half and trailed 10-0 at the break.
Marshall caught just one pass for 4 yards. Jason Campbell completed 4 of 5 for 13 yards before Josh McCown relieved him, and Michael Bush carried three times for 2 yards in his first appearance as a Bear. He also lost a fumble in the first quarter that led to a field goal for Denver.
Caleb Hanie then came in for Manning and was immediately booed by Chicago fans for failing last year after Cutler suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Besides the field goal, he led the Broncos on a 57-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter and wound up going 7 for 14 for 79 yards.
But in the end, the focus was right where it started — on Manning.
"To me there was no difference," said Stokley, who played with him in Indianapolis. "He still throws the ball great. I think everybody saw today that he has great control of the offense. I think we are just going to try to build on this and get better every week. I think it was a good first step."