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Peyton Manning responds with his arm -- and words -- vs. Texans

DENVER--This is a tale of three helmets. The first, D.J. Swearinger’s, collides with Wes Welker, whose helmet then hits turf. It reverberates. Welker bounces. He retreats to the locker room.

The third is Peyton Manning’s, and it tilts thisclose to Swearinger’s after the Broncos’ second touchdown drive of the night. A flag follows. Taunting, on Manning. This is the helmet that surrounds the head that holds the brain that decides the Broncos’ fate, and on Saturday night, it needed to taunt.

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According to Swearinger, who spoke with the Denver Post after the game, Manning’s message was simple: (“F*** you.”) And even the most elementary lip reader can confirm the Texans safety’s response: “F*** you.” Manning, though, tells a different story, however tongue-in-cheek. “He said thanks,” Manning deadpanned after the game. “He said, ‘Appreciate it. Good luck to you as well.’”

Saturday’s was the first taunting penalty of Manning’s career, and like most things the quarterback does, it was calculated to a tee. He saw the clock – nine seconds remaining in the half – and he knew that a 15-yard slap on the wrist would ultimately mean nothing. And so the man who earlier in the week reamed his teammates’ performance at a joint practice with Houston leaned into Swearinger and stood up for his receiver. His teammates took notice, not of the penalty, but of the gesture.

“Most teams, you know, they call the other guys teammates,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We’re brothers. We’re a band of brothers. Peyton didn’t like that. No one likes that. It’s bad sportsmanship.”

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Welker was diagnosed with a concussion after the hit, his third in 10 months, which is certainly troubling in and of itself. Still, the postgame focus remained on Manning and what he wouldn’t cop to cursing before halftime. His penalty and the touchdown the preceded it almost perfectly capture the narrative Manning has been crafting all week: Don’t you dare call these Broncos perfect, but damn if they can’t turn it on and come close – as a unit, as a team, as a group that isn’t going to take a dirty play from anyone.

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Rewind to Tuesday. Manning was disappointed, even though it was a light practice, sans pads. “I thought our offense stunk today,” he said. “I thought (Houston’s) defense totally kicked our butt.” By Wednesday, things got chippy. And Saturday night, the game started poorly. Field goal, punt, interception, missed field goal. The Broncos looked to be faltering – and Manning couldn’t have scripted it better, even if the early struggles weren’t necessarily by choice.

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“In some ways, maybe it’s a good thing that we had a three-and-out there and turned it over, because you like to see how you respond after that,” Manning said. “We responded with a good drive. Ended up missing a field goal, but a good drive. … That was actually better than going out and going three-for-three and nothing really going wrong.”

But as things went poorly, Manning’s criticism was fresh. Look, Peyton was right. The offense does stink. And then… a 67-yard touchdown pass, and a 29-yarder, both to Sanders. The Broncos were winning – they’d go on to lose, 18-17, thanks to a late Tom Savage touchdown pass – and things looked right in Denver. Manning had pushed his teammates and cursed out the bad guy on their behalf.

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In just five days, Manning went from cranky to critical to resolute. It’s too early to be talking Super Bowl – too early especially for Manning’s liking – and so he’s setting the expectations higher and talking about how far his team is from meeting them. He’s pointing out the flaws that are certainly there, if not sometimes masked, and he’s demanding more. By now, his teammates have learned that much of his griping is motivational – “It’s our third year with him, so we know when he’s mad and we know what we have to do to make it better,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said Tuesday – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t listening.

The Broncos’ 34-0 drubbing of San Francisco Sunday was met with the expected fanfare of last year’s Super Bowl loser dominating one of the best team’s in the NFL’s toughest division. On Tuesday, retired tight end Tony Gonzalez told Newsday that he believes the Broncos will have a perfect season en route to a Super Bowl win. It was Manning’s nightmare: too much of a focus on February, and not enough on next week. And so he turned to talking, and by Saturday night, it didn’t matter if Manning was ready for the Super Bowl. It mattered if he felt ready for the Colts.

His answer was yes. And his message was to watch out – for his arm, and for his mouth.