Today marks the first real day of NFL preseason football, which is, without question, an exciting day for NFL fans, analysts and players alike.
Six games are on the bill, and writers will have endless ledes and angles on how to break down and dissect the evening's action.
In Atlanta, the Falcons will host the Baltimore Ravens, which will feature the ever-intriguing battle of quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, who entered the league together via the 2008 NFL draft. The New England Patriots will host the New Orleans Saints in a very likely preview of this year's Super Bowl.
Without question, Thursday's slate of games is exciting and intriguing in multiple ways, and Denver versus Chicago is no exception. At Soldier Field, all eyes will be on Denver's No. 18, quarterback Peyton Manning, who will make his debut as a Denver Bronco. Even more interesting is that Peyton has not played competitively since the 2011 Pro Bowl.
Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of not only his era, but of all time. In 13 seasons prior to last year, Peyton did not miss a game, and in that time, hardly did he miss a beat. His worst season was his rookie year, when he passed for a "modest" 3,739 yards.
While no one questions Peyton's awareness on the field—for example, it's the highest of all players in Madden 13—there are many cynical thoughts about his health, particularly his neck. Players recover from injuries all the time, yet ones that involve the neck and/or back tend to be re-irritated easier than others. At 36 years old, Peyton's age also raises some concerns. Can someone north of 35 really recover and play at full steam?
Without delving into a round of speculation about whether the answer to that question is yes or no, you can be sure that Denver will proceed cautiously with its new prized possession. This evening, don't expect to see Peyton for more than a quarter, and if there were an over/under bet on that, I'd take the under.
While Peyton is on the field, however, don't expect to see any plays out of the shotgun that could put him in a vulnerable position. Denver will run the majority of its plays up the middle, as it has to test out the chops of rookie running back Ronnie Hillman and embattled back Knowshon Moreno.
However, Denver does has an overbooked roster of receivers at the moment, and the next four games need to determine who makes the team and where on the depth chart they are placed. Peyton and his receivers need some on-field practice before the season commences, so do expect Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell to see at least two passes each thrown in their direction. As for the other receivers, they'll be working with backups Caleb Hanie and Brock Osweiler.
Aside from playing time, expect the sensation, buzz, and reception around Peyton Manning to be overwhelmingly giddy and positive. The cameras will be focused on him during his entrance and while he's standing on the sidelines, the color commentary will largely be centered on his progress with Denver's young receivers and the Chicago crowd will pack Soldier Field and cheer for one of football's greatest fighters.
Chicago fans may not have the best reputation, but expect nothing but class from them as they get the honor of witnessing Peyton's return to competitive football. On all other occasions, this preseason game would take place and then be forgotten. Not tonight. This is a unique game, featuring a comeback unlike any that we have ever seen. I envy the folks that will be in attendance at Soldier Field tomorrow; they are witnessing something truly special.
Stat Predictions for Peyton
5-of-8 passing, 63 yards, one touchdown