Updated: August 24, 2014 at 9:01 am
DENVER — Who does this Peyton Manning think he is, Johnny Manziel?
In a preseason game that meant nothing, unless you ask the Broncos who gained another level of respect for their quarterback, all that was missing was the money sign. Go ahead, Mr. MVP. Rub those fingers together.
Throwing 55 touchdown passes in a single regular season was great and all. But what Manning did late Saturday night offered proof the Broncos defense isn't the only thing that has added an element of competitive nasty since a loss in the Super Bowl.
In 2014, Manning means business.
The highlight of the Broncos' preseason arrived in an 18-17 loss to the Houston Texans at Sports Authority Field. After floating a pinpoint touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders with 9 seconds left in the first half, Manning made a beeline at Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. Manning bumped his helmet against Swearinger's and shared enough choice words to draw a flag.
Here's the box score, for the sake of posterity: "PENALTY on DEN-P. Manning, Taunting, 15 yards, enforced between downs."
Peeved Peyton. Penalized Peyton. Proud Peyton.
"Fifteen yards with five seconds left in the half can't hurt you that much," Manning said afterward in the locker room.
Don't mess with Texas? Don't mess with The Sheriff.
Something ruffled Manning's feathers. National media will suggest it was Swearinger's vicious tackle of Wes Welker, who endured yet another blow to the dome and left the game for his weekly series of concussion tests (a concussion was confirmed). Hopefully that trashes the idea that Welker should return punts, for one thing.
"We're a band of brothers. Peyton didn't like that (hit on Welker)," Sanders said. "No one likes that. It's bad sportsmanship."
But here's a hunch Manning's reaction stems from an episode on practice field No. 2 at Dove Valley. On Tuesday, the first day of joint practices between the Broncos and the Texans, I watched Swearinger intercept a Manning pass attempt and dance down the sideline as if he was the great Deion Sanders starring on "Monday Night Football."
Manning last season remembered Milt Plum, a quarterback from the 1960s. Think he's going to forget a Texans defensive back showing him up in practice?
That happened the same day that Manning called out his teammates by saying, "Our offense stunk today." With Manning, there is no such thing as coincidence.
In a game against the Redskins last season, Manning was correctly flagged for a holding penalty. It was startling enough that it sprang to mind almost a year later.
His taunting penalty is one his teammates will remember. When Manning returned to the sideline and set down his helmet on a bench, Demaryius Thomas approached him from the side. Manning said something that made his favorite wide receiver double over in laughter. DT's orange-and-blue visor nearly fell from his head.
Manning's passing statistics in roughly six quarters of preseason work: 43 of 54 for 423 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 110.1.
Yes, Manning remains a viable option in fantasy football.
Yes, the Broncos remain Manning's team.
That was never more evident during a series of joint practices with the Texans. The most dominant player on the practice field was Houston All-Pro J.J. Watt.
The most demanding was Manning. The day after Manning announced the Broncos had stunk it up, he shredded the Texans defense like he shredded NFL records in 2013. After the rare busted play, Manning shouted his disapproval for all to hear.
For the 38-year-old quarterback, every play matters.
Seattle's 43-8 beatdown of the Broncos was not an embarrassment, Manning said on that forgettable February night in New Jersey. But it seems the Super Bowl loss added another log to the competitive fire that burns in the quarterback's belly. He's been more animated, more vocal, more intense since training camp opened in July.
Over the final 1:41 of the first half on Saturday, Manning and the Broncos offense racked up two touchdowns and more yards (146) than the Texans had in the entire first half (117). Then he stood up for a teammate, and himself.
When the giant videoboard showed Manning taunting Swearinger on replay, Mile High rocked like it was already the season opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
So did Manning's own sideline.