INDIANAPOLIS — The walk from the field to the locker room took Peyton Manning about 67 seconds. Much of the way, Manning winced. It was difficult to tell if the pain on his face was from the physical beating of an NFL game or the physical hurt of losing to his younger doppelganger. Three steps...wince. More steps...wince. There was also a noticeable limp.
There were no cameras close by, no teammates in the immediate vicinity. Just Manning, and his thoughts, and his wince, and his limp.
Some 100 feet away and 30 minutes later, around the twists and turns of the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, owner Jim Irsay emerged from the Colts locker room. In his right hand was a football, a game ball given to him by the team, and in his left was a bottle of water. He looked almost teary-eyed. Or weary. Or both.
He was wearing a tight-fitting black suit, and when he turned a corner he received a round of applause from a small security contingent. There were hugs and more hugs, but he never lost hold of that football. He placed it gently into the backseat of his black sedan and drove away.
Those scenes, and the 39-33 Colts win, ended a tumultuous week that started with harsh words from Irsay and ended with a harsher beating of Manning. Both of those—the Broncos' loss and Irsay's taunting—are interrelated. If you don't think Irsay got inside Manning's head, you weren't paying attention. Irsay set up a table there, brought some margaritas, a guitar, then banged out some tunes that caused massive disruption in Manning's synapses.
Manning was clearly rattled in this game and, yes, Manning can be rattled in big spots. This is a well-known fact, like gravity.
The entire Denver team looked different. It's true that the Colts are damn good, but it is also true that the Broncos are more talented. They were 6-0, and Manning was rewriting the record book. Sunday, Manning was picked off once, sacked four times and on the wrong end of 10 quarterback hits. Several of those sacks were Manning's fault, as that characteristic sixth sense he possesses, where he can feel the defender and release the football just before contact, was way off.
One of the biggest signs the Broncos were out of sorts came in the third quarter. Denver had four possessions, and three of them were three-and-outs. The fourth ended in a field goal.
Andrew Luck was steady and mistake-free with no interceptions and built a 33-14 lead that gave the team enough of a cushion to withstand the inevitable Manning comeback. In the end, however, this game really wasn't about either Luck or Manning. In a game that was sloppily played but still lived up to the hype, the night belonged to Irsay.
In the Colts locker room after the game, coach Chuck Pagano became extremely emotional when speaking of Irsay, almost tearing up when describing how supportive Irsay has been for the team. That scene shows that while the Colts say it was just another game, it certainly wasn't.
Irsay is viewed as the tweeting goof—a Jerry Jones wannabe in search of the next cocktail—while in reality he's a closet genius. His words this week took the pressure off his club. As the media chased phantoms, the Colts players never got caught up in what Luck called "all the BS."
"We just prepared for a football game," Luck said.
Jim Irsay in many ways set a delicious trap, and Manning, Broncos coach John Fox and ex-Colts GM (as well as Irsay nemesis) Bill Polian all stepped in it. Cue the jaws shutting.
Manning was off. Passes fluttered, he took huge hits, and he fumbled once near the goal line. A Robert Mathis strip-sack from behind rattled Manning even more.
When asked about his arm strength and wobbly throws, Manning said, "I throw a lot of wobbly passes. I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too."
The surreal week began with the comments from Irsay, which proved to be like a piece of modern art. One person would read Irsay's words and see a shot at Manning. Another would read them and see a shot at Polian. Polian himself sounded off in the lead-up to the game this week, saying he hasn't talked to Irsay since Irsay fired him and doesn't plan to in the future.
While Manning has maintained a professional demure, if you know anything about Manning, it's that he's easily angered by slights—perceived or real. There's little doubt that Manning wanted to bash in the Colts' collective face, because that's Manning. He's one of the most competitive people on the planet, and after reading Irsay's comments, there's no question Manning was stewing.
Manning said he and Irsay spoke late this past week, and as Manning explained it, the quarterback put the drama behind him. But just the fact that Manning had to take that call played into Irsay's goal. Or at least what I believe was his goal.
There is precedent for Manning's situation—the living legend returning to the team that cut him—but very little. Brett Favre going back to Green Bay. Wayne Gretzky returning to Edmonton as a Los Angeles King is an even better example.
Perhaps the greatest comparison is Joe Montana playing the 49ers as a Chief. Montana edged the team that cut him, and the player who replaced him, Steve Young, was beaten up in the process by Kansas City's defense.
Sunday's game began with both a nice tribute and gamesmanship. Manning received a splendid ovation from the crowd and, in turn, Manning waved to them, acknowledging their applause.
But before that moment, the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium was opened. Outside it was a clear, beautiful night, the moon shining in the background. The roof wasn't opened so fans could enjoy the 59-degree weather.
It was opened because Manning always hated when it was opened when he played in Indianapolis. True story.
Another Irsay mind trick. Worked well.
All of them did.