CHICAGO -- Thursday night at rainy Soldier Field, quarterback Peyton Manning took his first snaps in an NFL game in nearly two years.
The four-time NFL MVP kicked off a 31-3 Broncos win against the Chicago Bears by leading the Denver offense on an 11-play, 60-yard drive into the red zone, but a tipped pass ended the drive with an interception.
"It's disappointing, obviously, any time you get down in the red zone and don't come away with points," said Manning, who called Thursday's preseason opener "a decent start."
Regardless, Head Coach John Fox called Manning's performance in the win "remarkable," and while he was unhappy with his interception, Manning recognized the importance of Thursday's reps.
"Considering where I was a year ago, the fact that I was out there and took a snap and completed some passes today, it has been a long haul for me," Manning said. "That was rewarding, even that first snap, the very first play – that was a big step for me."
The opening drive began at Denver's own 38-yard line after a long kickoff return by wide receiver Matthew Willis. Manning's first pass of the day fell incomplete, but running back Willis McGahee picked up 11 yards and a first down on the following play.
From there, Manning got back to work, hitting tight end Jacob Tamme on a pass that was tipped by Bears linebacker Geno Hayes, but still resulted in a 12-yard gain.
McGahee took another carry for 3 yards, then -- thanks to plenty of time provided by the offensive line -- Manning found wide receiver Eric Decker wide open on the sideline for another first down.
A McGahee run for no gain, a holding penalty on tackle Ryan Clady and a 3-yard pass from Manning to running back Lance Ball out of the backfield left Denver with a third-and-17 at the Chicago 33-yard line. But Manning calmly dropped back and fired to Decker for a 19-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
After a McGahee run for 2 yards, Manning threw an incomplete pass aimed at wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, setting up third-and-8 at the 12-yard line. Manning looked for wide receiver Brandon Stokley inside the 5, but the pass was tipped by Chicago cornerback D.J. Moore and intercepted by safety Major Wright at the 4-yard line, ending the drive just short of paydirt.
"The ball got popped up a little bit, flopped around and their guy made a good play on it -- those things happen," Head Coach John Fox said.
It was Manning's first and last drive of the game, and he finished 4-of-7 for 44 yards and an interception.
"I thought there were some good things in there," Manning said. "We had a couple third downs we overcame and spread the ball around. I threw a pass to Decker there on the left sideline with really good protection. He was like the fifth read in the play – not one you usually get back to – some good protection. And I thought Willis had some good runs in there, so (there are) some things to build on and things that were positive."
Manning's interception wasn't the end of Denver's night, however -- and the first-team defense made sure it didn't lead to any momentum heading Chicago's way, either.
After the interception, the Bears offense, led by quarterback Jason Campbell -- Jay Cutler didn't play -- made it out to its own 30-yard line thanks to two Broncos penalties and two 1-yard Michael Bush runs. But when Campbell handed off to Bush a third time, the veteran running back fumbled the ball. Linebacker Von Miller picked it up off a bounce and sprinted all the way to the 6-yard line before being tripped up.
"I thought we rebounded (from the interception) pretty well," Fox said.
Quarterback Caleb Hanie and the second unit were in for the offense's second drive of the game, which resulted in a 28-yard Matt Prater field goal to give Denver a 3-0 lead that the team never relinquished.
The rest of the first half belonged to Denver, as Chicago's next three drives were three-and-outs, highlighted by rookie Derek Wolfe's first career sack, a big hit in the backfield by linebacker Nate Irving and a sack by defensive end Robert Ayers.
Irving's hit and Ayers' third-down sack set up Denver's next scoring drive.
On the strength of a 20-yard completion from Hanie to tight end Cornelius Ingram, the offense was able to punctuate its drive with a 2-yard Lance Ball touchdown run, giving Denver a 10-0 advantage.
"We had a lot of guys doing a lot of good things," Tamme said. "Coming off after that (opening) drive, it would've been great to get another chance to get back out there, but that will come. Everyone that stepped in really did a nice job."
At halftime, the Broncos had outgained the Bears 177 yards to 41, and Campbell called Denver's defense "tremendous."
Rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler put together a pair of scoring drives in the third quarter -- one capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Xavier Omon, and the second with a 19-yard touchdown strike from the rookie to wide receiver Jason Hill to give Denver a 24-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Denver's defense continued its dominant play, as Wolfe notched his second sack of the game and fellow rookie defensive lineman Malik Jackson recovered a fumble early in the third quarter to help get the offense going.
Bears kicker Robbie Gould hit a 47-yard field goal for Chicago's only points of the day, but in the fourth quarter, the defense was at it again. The Broncos sacked Chicago quarterback Matt Blanchard three times -- two courtesy of second-year defensive lineman Jeremy Beal -- and cornerback Joshua Moore capped off the effort with an interception.
Quarterback Adam Weber closed the game in the fourth quarter with the team's fourth touchdown -- a 25-yard hookup with Ingram to cement the final score, 31-3.
Even though the Broncos outgained the Bears by more than 200 yards and won the time of possession battle by more than seven minutes, the team knows it has plenty to work on.
"It was a convincing win, but we've still got to go back to the film," Tamme said. "There are probably a lot of things we could've done better. That's what this time of year is for."
Tamme said the players are looking forward to watching tape from something other than practice, and Fox is glad the team will have plenty to build on.
"It's a good first start, a good first outing," the head coach said. "It's what we do from it from here on that's going to count."