On a night where the Indianapolis Colts celebrated their past, their fans got a glimpse into the future. It's safe to say things are going well.
Andrew Luck threw three touchdown passes and the Indianapolis defense forced three turnovers, as the Colts spoiled Peyton Manning's return to Lucas Oil Stadium by scoring a 39-33 win over the Denver Broncos.
The Colts honored Manning before the game. Manning received a raucous ovation from the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd upon leaving the tunnel, and then the big screen played a video montage of his best moments with the franchise for about two minutes.
Two of Manning's most famous teammates, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, also helped ring in a celebration of the past.
Afterward, though, it was the team's present that dominated far more than the final score indicates. Manning threw two touchdown passes to give the Broncos an early 14-10 lead in the second quarter, but Luck soon began picking apart a Broncos secondary left scrambling after Champ Bailey left with an injury.
Luck led the Colts on a run of 21 consecutive points between the second and third quarters. The second-year quarterback threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Havili and an eight-yard score with Coby Fleener to give Indianapolis a 26-14 lead going into halftime. Luck then scampered for a 10-yard touchdown run to extend the Colts' lead to 33-14 with exactly five minutes remaining in the third.
With Indy holding a 19-point lead well into the fourth quarter after the teams traded field goals, 36-17, the game seemed all but wrapped up. The Colts offense was moving the ball well on the Denver defense, while Manning had failed to score a touchdown on eight consecutive drives. Robert Mathis and the Indy pass rush had made his homecoming a nightmare, rendering the league's highest-scoring offense almost impotent.
And then Manning and the Broncos turned on the jets.
Taking over following Adam Vinatieri's 52-yard field goal, Manning marched the entire way up the field in three plays. He hit Eric Decker up the middle on a jump ball for 49 yards, and then hit Demaryius Thomas on a 31-yard touchdown pass to bring the game within two scores.
Denver missed on the two-point conversion attempt, but got the ball back two plays into the Colts' next drive thanks to a Trent Richardson fumble. The Broncos took over at the Indianapolis 23-yard line and matriculated their way up the field, with Knowshon Moreno scoring from one yard out. Suddenly, the Broncos were down 36-30 with nearly nine minutes remaining on the clock.
When the Colts were quickly forced to punt—on a possession in which Reggie Wayne was injured, no less—it looked like Peyton Manning was on the precipice of pulling off another Indy miracle.
But it wasn't to be.
As it had throughout the evening, the Indianapolis pass rush made the big play. Linebacker Erik Walden pressured Manning from behind and hit his arm on the forward motion, causing the pass into the hands of Pat Angerer.
After the Colts tacked on another field goal to bring the score to 39-30 with 5:57 remaining, Walden created another huge turnover. The young linebacker stripped the ball out of Ronnie Hillman's arms on the Indy 2-yard line, and Antoine Bethea recovered to essentially ice the game.
In the end, Manning continued his run of gaudy stats. He threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against one interception, completing 29 of his 49 pass attempts. But a majority of those yards came with his team's back against the wall, well after costly penalties and short drives set up the Colts to extend their lead.
"I hope we get a chance to play these guys and maybe if there is a next time, it might be a little easier because it certainly was an emotionally draining week, there's no doubt about that," Manning said, the Associated Press.
Luck's stats weren't quite as gaudy (21-of-38, 228 yards, 3 TDs), but actually led to the higher QB rating (99.5 vs. 96.1). Indy's running game proved ineffective, with Donald Brown and Richardson both averaging fewer than three yards per carry. But by avoiding costly mistakes and taking advantage of Denver's, Luck was able end his predecessor's quest for an undefeated season.
At 5-2, the Colts have some of the league's most impressive wins on their resume. They've defeated Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, making the team's losses against Miami and San Diego all the more difficult to comprehend. Viewed by many as a team likely to regress heading into the 2013 season, the Colts have proven themselves capable of playing with any Super Bowl contender.
Meanwhile, Denver finds itself still tied for the second-best record in the league, but also second in its division. The Kansas City Chiefs brought their record to 7-0 on Sunday with a 17-16 victory over Houston. Although most would still consider Denver the favorites in the AFC West, Sunday night proved the Broncos aren't as impregnable as some once thought.
Andrew Luck (QB, Indianapolis Colts): A
I know Luck was labeled the best quarterback prospect since Manning, but no one could have expected the Stanford product to be this good this fast. Although he's often hamstrung by the quizzically conservative play-calling of Pep Hamilton, Luck makes the best out of nearly every situation.
He's smart with the football, makes every necessary throw, and moves better than anyone gives him credit for in the pocket. The bad downfield mistakes that plagued his 2012 season are a thing of the past, leaving only a player who is on the precipice of living up to his hype.
There will be many who juxtapose Luck and Manning's performances—who use this Colts win as a pulpit to say Jim Irsay was justified in releasing the best regular-season quarterback in league history.
That's patently unfair to both Manning and Luck, but in particular to Luck. Let's do ourselves a favor and allow Luck's great season to rest on its own laurels.
Peyton Manning (QB, Denver Broncos): B
I'm struck by the inevitable narrative of it all: How Manning looked less than stellar when the Colts opened the roof, allowing the chilly Indianapolis air to come wafting through the stadium. How the best offense in football history through six games sputtered exactly when the narrative called for it.
As for Manning, he wasn't terrible. Not by a long stretch. There were no Blaine Gabbert levels of ineptitude, but mere mediocrity for the game's middle stretch that put his team in a hole. Manning's deep balls sailed one or two yards too long, and his usually crisp short passes were off by just enough to limit the yards after catch.
There's no need to freak out here; the Broncos are just fine. But the Colts did the one thing that has always been Manning's Achilles' heel: They pressured him. A lot. They mixed up blitz packages and even got pressure off their down-linemen sets, which has been the calling card to stopping a Peyton Manning team since the beginning of time.
He eventually figured out the Colts' schemes, but that effort came too late.
Robert Mathis (DE, Indianapolis Colts): A
Let's just say Mathis had a few of those hits he laid on Manning resting in his chamber for a while. After years of getting to Manning in practice and having to lay up before getting to his teammate, Mathis was finally able to unleash nine years' worth of hits in one night.
Mathis pressured Manning throughout the contest, recording two sacks, four QB hits and nearly getting there many more times. His strip-sack and near recovery was one of the major turning points in the game, helping flip a 14-10 deficit to a 19-14 halftime lead for Indianapolis.
"That's my job, that's how I help my team," Mathis said. "It felt good."
Manning often makes things look way easier than they are, but Ryan Clady's absence was put in neon-bright lights on Sunday. Chris Clark couldn't contain Mathis' speed on the outside or his power when he came barreling in.
With 11.5 sacks less than halfway through the season, though, Mathis is proving that not too many can.
Demaryius Thomas (WR, Denver Broncos): C
We may be reaching a chicken-egg situation with Thomas and Manning. Is Manning simply not looking for Demaryius Thomas, or is Manning not throwing to Thomas because he can't get open?
It's hard to tell. Although the talented wideout had four receptions for 82 yards and a fourth-quarter TD, there seemed to be a fundamental disconnect there for much of the game. Manning's throws to Thomas were often into coverage, and there were a few times I noticed where the former Georgia Tech standout should have gotten the ball but didn't.
Indianapolis did a nice job of messing with the rhythms of the passing game, but this is two straight underwhelming performances from Thomas.
The 5-2 Colts are off next week before playing their second consecutive Sunday Night Football contest against the struggling Houston Texans. The 6-1 Broncos host the Washington Redskins next Sunday before heading off to their Week 9 bye.
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