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Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos successfully clear first hurdle

CHICAGO -- There will be time to break it all down. To evaluate all 12 snaps, including the one that was negated by a holding penalty. To examine the eight times he threw the ball, from a nifty third-and-long conversion to a drive-killing interception at the 2-yard line.

To gauge arm strength and offensive familiarity, new surroundings and overall health.

The Denver Broncos don't play in the preseason again until Aug. 18, which leaves more than a week to make wide-ranging generalizations on the state of Peyton Manning's comeback. Manning, the perfectionist four-time Most Valuable Player, will do it, too.

Just not on Thursday night.

Following a 31-3 preseason win over the Chicago Bears at rainy Soldier Field, Manning hopped off the treadmill bound for a Sept. 9 Sunday-night showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers to reflect. Four minutes into a rat-a-tat-tat postgame press conference, the former Indianapolis Colts mega-star paused and collected himself. It was almost as if the new Broncos leader suddenly was tapped on the shoulder and reminded, There was no guarantee you'd ever get back on the field.

"I always have to take the time to say, I sure have come a long way in a year," Manning said, hit by emotion all at once. "How much hard work I've put in. How much help I've gotten."

By the time the Steelers arrive at Mile High just over four weeks from now, Manning will be back to all-business. Stern expression planted on his face, he'll be looking forward, not back. But 557 days since he threw an incomplete pass intended for Blair White in a wild-card loss to the New York Jets with a minute left, Manning delved deep into thought, acknowledging what it took to reach this point. This, of course, was his first game action since a nerve issue in his neck robbed him of the entire 2011 season (preseason included), resulted in two vertebrae being fused together and made him one of the most sought-after free agents ever. Reflecting on the road to recovering, he thanked his support staff, mentioning trainers and doctors in Indianapolis and Denver. He confirmed what became obvious when his neck injury first arose: He's human.

"It's been a long haul for me," said Manning, who quarterbacked one drive on Thursday night, finishing 4-for-7 for 44 yards with a tipped interception. "That was rewarding. Even that first snap for the first play, that was a big step for me."

No doubt, he is appreciative; especially considering some -- not just actor Rob Lowe -- thought Manning's illustrious career might be finished. For a brief moment, he took stock, put the X's-and-O's aside and hugged the life that returned to him.

Then, a reporter asked if he had wanted to get popped to test his rehabilitated neck. Manning swiftly quipped, "I think that'd be a dumb answer if I said yes." Like that, he was back.

First hurdle cleared: Manning played in a game and escaped to play another. As for his next hurdle?

"I have high expectations, as I know he does," coach John Fox said. "So, he'll continue to improve."

On the football field, it wasn't all pretty. But it certainly wasn't ugly. Manning noted, "We can build on this," and there were enough positives to do so. Also, enough negatives to keep him grinding.

In reality, of Manning's seven passes (not including the one the holding call brought back), two were tipped. One of those tipped passes was thrown behind old friend Brandon Stokley and ended up in the hands of Bears defensive back Major Wright for an interception. His arm looked strong enough, but not quite the rocket arm we're used to with No. 18. No pass flew more than 20 yards in the air. Yet the offense appeared to be on the same page.

There were, in fact, moments where it appeared he'd never left the field.

"It didn't look like he missed a beat, being out all last year," receiver Eric Decker said.

It was what the NFL world had been waiting for.

"I mean, everybody wanted to see him go out and play," Denver pass rusher Von Miller said. "But we'd been seeing him practice excellent this whole time. He looked like Peyton Manning today, yes sir. He's our quarterback, everybody was out there watching the offense go."

Like on second-and-7 when he found receiver Decker for a 10-yard gain on his fifth read, thanks to plenty of time in the pocket and his usual poise.

"That's not one you usually get back to," said Manning, who drove the team 50 yards on the game's opening drive. "So, some good protection."

On third-and-17 came his finest moment. Manning took a shotgun snap, surveyed the field, relaxed in the pocket and hit Decker in stride for a 19-yard gain over the middle. To teammates, it was exactly what they'd witnessed during camp. A brief glimpse, but a familiar one.

"I see the Peyton Manning that I've been seeing the last couple of weeks, months," said running back Willis McGahee, who had four carries for 16 yards. "Been practicing with him. So, there wasn't no doubt in my mind."

Others might have had doubts. As Broncos vice president John Elway noted in an interview last month, the questions come until people see him on the field. They have now.

But Manning is his own harshest critic, and that will continue. He'll sit down Friday and watch film with his offense, pinpointing areas where improvement is needed. That doesn't change no matter how many years he's been doing it.

Yes, he wanted to go back in after just 12 plays. In a way, he felt more pressure to get enough accomplished in a small time window, aware that his playing time would be limited. But he did what he could and will move on to the next small test.

The public received its Manning fix, and Manning received his first football fix in a long time. The offense found some rhythm, which was the goal. And teammates reinforced what they've been thinking all preseason:

"He can't do anything but make our offense better," McGahee said.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet

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