Peyton Manning set to return to game action

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Peyton Manning set to return to game action

From Comcast SportsNet

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are treating their visit to Chicago on Thursday night just like any other preseason opener.

Only, it isn't.

This marks the four-time MVP's first game of any sort since Jan. 30, 2011, when he went 2-for-5 for 12 yards and an interception in the AFC's 55-41 loss to the NFC in the Pro Bowl.

"I think he's anxious to get in there, just like all of our starters," coach John Fox said Tuesday.

Anybody who wants to see Manning's first game in 18 months had better tune in early because he won't have much more than a cameo appearance at Soldier Field.

"Well, we don't get into how much we're going to do but we'll approach it much like any first preseason games," Fox said. "Our first unit will go the first quarter -- about -- and the seconds will go the second and third quarters, and the third will finish out the fourth quarter."

That's fine with Manning.

"We'd like to get a drive or two going," Manning said. "I've always said you love to get a bit of everything in the preseason if you can. You love to get some short-yardage work, some third-down conversions, you'd love to get some red zone, goal line. In all four games, if you can get all the situations that we work on out here, that would be ideal.

"So, however long we play, or whatever Coach Fox wants to do, we're good with. We just need to play well when we're out there."

Manning missed all of last season with a nerve injury in his neck that weakened his throwing arm and led to his tearful release from the Indianapolis Colts that set off the biggest free agent frenzy in NFL history. He landed in Denver and hasn't looked back.

Throughout offseason workouts, minicamp and training camp with the Broncos (No. 10 in the AP Pro32), Manning has had plenty of zip on his passes and he's been as accurate and cerebral as ever.

Even Tuesday, when he had his share of incompletions against an ever-improving, first-string defense, Manning was sharp in his decisions.

"I wouldn't say that," Manning retorted when asked if it was a frustrating day at practice. "Every day, you're trying to get better. Certainly, there's always some things you can improve on."

Although his fused neck is actually stronger than it was pre-surgery, the next big mile marker in Manning's comeback is bouncing back from that first big hit.

Manning said he has no doubt he is ready to absorb it, although the Broncos aren't exactly eager to get that blast behind them.

"Well, you never want to see your guy the one being hit regardless of position," Fox said. "But it's all part of the game. I think he's definitely preparing himself, and we'll see how it goes Thursday night."

Manning has spent the last five months learning his new teammates and working on timing with his new targets, but he is eager to see who steps up in the preseason.

"The lights have not been on yet," Manning said. "We've had practices, we had the scrimmage Saturday, which was a game-like atmosphere, but going against a different opponent on Thursday" will provide a better gauge.

"So it's serious business out there on Thursday. There's jobs being competed for, there's jobs that people are trying to keep. That's where all of us have something to play for," he added. "Sure, you want to win the game, but everybody's competing, trying to do their jobs well."

Notes: DT Ty Warren didn't finish practice because of a stomach problem. ... Several of DT Ben Garland's defensive teammates gave him two replacement silver sabers he received upon graduating from the Air Force Academy, along with a Falcons football helmet. The originals were lost in the wildfire that destroyed his grandparents' home in Colorado Springs this summer. ... RB Knowshon Moreno made a big blunder when he ran out of bounds during a two-minute drill in which Denver's offense was trying to protect a late lead. "That's why you practice it," Fox said. "I'd rather that happen now in a practice situation vs. in a game when it counts." ... With Manning the marquee attraction, the Broncos have drawn 74,209 fans to camp. With five public practices remaining, they could double their old record of 45,124 set last year.

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to have the best rotation in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young Award winner who won't get the Opening Night assignment. John Lackey is a No. 3 starter already fitted for his third World Series ring. Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year and won't start until the fifth game of this season.  

Do you feel like this is the best rotation in baseball?

"We're up there, yeah," Arrieta said after homering off Zack Greinke during Thursday afternoon's 5-5 tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. "I think on paper – and with what we've actually done on the field – it's tough to not say that.

"We like the guys we have. People can rank them, but time will tell. Once we get out there the first four or five times through the rotation, I think you can probably put a stamp on it then, more so than now. 

"But, yeah, we stack up just as well as anybody out there, for sure."  

Arrieta made it through five innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up three runs and eight hits in what figures to be his second-to-last Cactus League tune-up before facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 4. 

The New York Mets blew away Cubs hitters with their power pitching and game-planning during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep. The Washington Nationals are trying to keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy and already watched Tanner Roark deliver for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. 

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in a possible elimination game at Wrigley Field last October. The Los Angeles Dodgers almost became a matchup nightmare for the Cubs with lefties Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill during the 2016 NLCS.

But slotting Hendricks at No. 5 – five months after he started a World Series Game 7 – is a luxury few contenders can afford. 

"That just speaks to our length in the rotation," Arrieta said, "and being able to keep relievers out of the game, longer than most teams. That's a big deal, especially when you get into July and August. 

"Obviously, Kyle could be a 1 or 2 just about anywhere. Not that he's not here. We've got several of those, which is a good problem to have. It's going to be favorable for us when there's a No. 4 or No. 5 guy in our rotation going up against somebody else's. Our chances are really good, especially with our lineup." 

Arrieta talked up No. 4 starter Brett Anderson as "a little bit like Hendricks from the left side" in terms of his preparation, cerebral nature and spin rate, a combination that makes him an X-factor for this rotation and an organization starved for pitching beyond 2017. 

The if-healthy disclaimer always comes with Anderson, who played with Arrieta on the 2008 Olympic team and has been on the disabled list nine times since then. Coming out of high school, Arrieta initially signed to play for Anderson's father, Frank, the Oklahoma State University coach at the time, before going in a different direction in a career that wouldn't truly take off until he got to Chicago. 

"We're all looking forward to seeing how we pick up where we left off," Arrieta said. "Judging by what we've done this spring and the shape guys are in and the health – I don't see any reason we can't jump out to an early lead like we did last year and sustain it throughout the entire season."