Peyton Manning is getting ready to lead his undefeated Denver Broncos into a meeting with the Indianapolis Colts, a team he called his own for more than a decade, and the new face of the franchise, fellow quarterback Andrew Luck.
As recently as last weekend, the expected storyline of Manning vs. Luck was setting up to steal the spotlight. Given Denver's remarkable offensive efficiency and Indianapolis' middling defense, asking the second-year rising star to shoulder that load would have been tough.
Instead, eccentric Colts owner Jim Irsay has changed the script.
Jarrett Bell of USA Today passed along comments Irsay made about Manning's return to Indianapolis. Most of them were mundane in nature, talking about how things have worked out for both sides and how the decision was made.
But he raised eyebrows when asked about how things changed after they opted to go with Luck, paving the way for Manning to join the Broncos. The remarks were geared toward the lack of Super Bowl rings the veteran quarterback was able to win in a Colts uniform despite consistent playoff appearances:
"We've changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these," Irsay says, flicking up his right hand to show his Super Bowl XLI championship ring.
"(Tom) Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these," Irsay adds. "Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated.
"You make the playoffs 11 times, and you're out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this."
Then Irsay flicks up his right hand again.
Two points come out of those few short sentences.
First, the minute they were printed the main storyline changed from Manning vs. Luck to Manning vs. Irsay. There was no way those statements were going to slip through the cracks leading up to the week's biggest game.
Second, it's a fair criticism of the Manning years in Indianapolis. The Colts were one of the most successful franchises in the league during that period, but that outstanding success in the regular season only led to one championship.
Was the lack of success always Manning's fault? Absolutely not, but his lasting legacy will always include a lack of titles unless he goes on a late title streak with the Broncos.
One of the biggest problems that prevented the Colts from having more postseason triumphs was the lack of defensive support. Only twice from 1998 through 2010 did the Indianapolis defense rank inside the top 10 in yards allowed.
Manning was able to overcome that deficiency in the regular season, but when the playoffs arrived, and the level of competition was higher with each passing round, it became more of an uphill battle.
The pressure continued to build on Manning's shoulders and he didn't always handle it well.
His career quarterback rating, which isn't a perfect stat but at least gives a solid snapshot of his overall performance, drops more than eight points from the regular season to the postseason.
Only Irsay knows whether he truly meant to stir the pot with his comments, but as a heavily involved owner, he understands better than anybody else the type of pressure Manning puts on himself when the onus is on him to carry a team to victory.
By talking about the lack of big-game success leading up to a huge matchup, Irsay put an extra layer of attention on Manning and removed it from Luck, who's already tasked with bouncing back after his worst performance on the season.
Again, it isn't clear if that was Irsay's intention from the moment he spoke with USA Today or it simply worked out that way in the end. Either way, it helps take the spotlight off his players and puts it on himself and Manning instead.
But the damage was already done. As former Colts coach Tony Dungy told ESPN, it appears Irsay was simply trying to help his team get a competitive edge going into the contest:
Dungy thinks Irsay was deliberately trying to provoke the highly competitive Manning.
"I think that's what he's trying to do," Dungy told ESPN in a text message. "Have him make it such a big game he doesn't perform well. I can't figure any other reason to go this way."
If that's the case, it certainly seems to be working.
Should somebody have offered Irsay the opportunity to allow his team to prepare for the Broncos in relative peace while he dominated the headlines over some remarks he made, the owner would have probably accepted that deal in a heartbeat.
Luck will still need to out-duel Manning, or at least keep pace with him, in order to give the Colts a realistic chance of pulling out the upset on Sunday night. But surely it's easier to prepare for that challenge without being the focus of attention.
Whether all the mind games will result in a Colts victory is very much a toss-up. Right now, it might take an All-Pro defense to slow down the Broncos' passing attack.
In the end, taking attention away from the team and putting it on the owner certainly doesn't hurt Indianapolis' chances.
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