On the surface to most NFL fans, it may look like the Indianapolis Colts handily beat the Denver Broncos. However, the scoreboard and statistics are very misleading. I urge you to take a deeper look into the game and see how the Broncos defense handled Peyton Manning.
The first half was somewhat of a train wreck for the Broncos, and it really is the reason they lost the game. A lot of the blame goes to head coach Josh McDaniels for some very ordinary play calls in critical situations.
In the past, under Mike Shanahan**, the Broncos rarely kept it close against Manning and the Colts. His Broncos never beat Manning in a meaningful game. On Sunday, first-year head coach Josh McDaniels had a very tough task in front of him. With a two-game lead in the AFC Wild Card race, the Broncos were on the road in Indianapolis, facing an undefeated Colts team lead by a healthy Peyton Manning.
After struggling mightily after knee surgery in 2008, Manning has returned to very good form in 2009. His passer rating of 101.9 rates him fifth in the NFL. He has thrown 29 touchdowns with a pretty much completely new corps of wide receivers this season. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie have been brought into the limelight under the wings of the future hall of famer.
Early in the season, Manning was lights out. He threw 20 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. That has changed as the quality of opponent has gotten better as of late. In his last four games, he has thrown only nine touchdowns and doubled his total interception total by throwing seven interceptions.
Even with his lack of success of late, the Colts are still unbeaten. Led by a stout defense and steady running from Joseph Addai, the Colts have managed to escape after being very vulnerable the past few weeks.
The Broncos had every chance to put the pressure on Manning and his teammates. Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey turned Manning over on multiple occasions giving the Broncos a legit chance to get back into the game. After allowing touchdowns on the Colts' first and second possessions, the Broncos defense forced a "three and out."
Orton followed it up with a nice completion to Brandon Marshall, which moved the Broncos to their own 30 yard line. A sack of zero yards and a run of four by rookie Knowshon Moreno made it 3rd-and-6 from their own 34.
In his first sketchy call, the Broncos handed it off for only a two-yard gain. They were forced to punt, and Manning led the Colts down for another touchdown making it 21-0. I question the young head coach and his decision to run the ball in the situation because of his experience with New England.
He knows that to beat Manning you need to score points. A very conservative play call in a desperate situation, called for play that is more likely to net more than six yards.
From that point until late in the game, the Broncos pretty much controlled the ball and the Colts. On the next drive, the Broncos got what they desperately needed. Eight completions and 80 yards later, Orton had made it 21-7, hitting Brandon Marshall for a five-yard touchdown catch.
The Colts went "three and out" on their next drive, using only 32 seconds of the clock. Denver started their next drive at their own 46 yard line. With great field position and a chance to cut the lead to one score, McDaniels' Broncos needed a big play.
With 1:41 on the clock, Moreno ran the ball for one yard on first down. On 2nd-and-9, a good pass to Moreno made it third and less than a yard from the Indianapolis 45-yard line. A run for no gain off of their right tackle, Tyler Polumbus made it a critical fourth down situation.
It was interesting that McDaniels decided to run behind one of his weaker lineman in such a crucial situation. At the start of the season, Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle Ryan Harris was starting. Due to an injury against the Baltimore Colts in which Harris dislocated two of his toes, the Broncos have had to make some changes up front.
In most situations, you would figure that if the Broncos needed one yard, they would call on the guy up front, their stand out, Ryan Clady. McDaniels much like his mentor Bill Belichick has been willing to go for it in most fourth and short situations.
He decided to go with another run, this time up the middle behind the lightest of the Broncos lineman, Casey Wiegmann. They were absolutely stuffed and turned it over on downs to the Colts with about 40 seconds until halftime.
With only 34 seconds on the clock, Manning was trying to move the Colts into field goal range when he was intercepted by Brian Dawkins at the 50-yard line. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Darrell Reid cost the Broncos a realistic chance at a legitimate drive.
The Broncos went into halftime down by 14 points when it realistically should have been less than that.
The Broncos have made very good coaching adjustments in all of their victories at halftime in those games. Their defense has honed in on what the offense had success doing in the first half and they have been able to shut it down when they needed it the most.
The Broncos went "three and out" on their very first possession of the second half and a nice punt by Mitch Berger pinned the Colts inside their own 20.
The Denver defense forced Manning to a couple bad incompletions and they punted the ball right back to the Broncos. After gains equaling 24 yards, the Broncos were in business at midfield. A nine-yard scramble by Orton on second down moved Denver closer and brought up 3rd-and-1 from the Indianapolis 33.
A terrible delay of game penalty by the offensive coaches and quarterback made it 3rd-and-6. Orton was sacked and Denver was forced to punt again.
On the next Colts drive, Manning threw another interception to Brian Dawkins and the Broncos had the ball at the Indianapolis 37-yard line. Moving it down to the Indianapolis 15-yard line after a series of runs and passed made it 3rd-and-1 for the third time in the game. Another penalty backed up the Broncos, making it 3rd-and-6.
Orton's next pass was badly underthrown and intercepted by the Colts. Squandering multiple opportunities has been the Broncos story in all of their losses this season. They made all of their bad mistakes at crucial moments in their comeback attempt. With first downs on Indianapolis's side of the field on those two drives, coming away with zero points ensured the negative outcome.
To make things worse, Manning was still throwing the ball erratically and the Broncos got the ball back 50 seconds later. Back to back plays totaling 26 yards moved them deep in Colts territory again. Three plays later, the streaky place kicker, Matt Prater, missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, making it four straight possessions with no points.
Guess what happened on the next Colts drive? The very first play was intercepted by Darcel McBath. He returned the pick to the Indianapolis 24-yard line. By now most fans watching this game can't believe how bad Manning is playing, not realizing that Denver could easily have tied or taken the lead had their offense put together any semblance of a drive.
Again, the Broncos decided to squander their opportunity. Unlike the last trip, Prater made his 28-yard field goal attempt. The Broncos had cut the lead to 11 with practically the entire fourth quarter in front of them.
Three straight quick incompletions in a matter of only 13 seconds gave the ball right back to the Broncos with a chance to make it a one-score game. A fairly quick, 11-play drive capped off by Brandon Marshall's NFL record-tying 20th catch for a five-yard touchdown made it 21-16. The two-point conversion, another conservative run up the middle, was no good.
At this point, I'm thinking how could this have happened. All of those second half defensive adjustments have caused Manning this much trouble, no way. He has faced so many looks and tests through the years. After re-watching the majority of the game, a lot of the problems stem from inexperienced receivers. He is relying on kids out their to make on-the-fly adjustments to their routes.
The problem is, Marvin Harrison isn't out there anymore. He has two reliable guys to throw the ball two, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. He was unable to get the matchups he wanted, and Denver was doing a good job of matching up Dawkins on Clark.
The comeback came up a little short for the Broncos, as Manning made a critical and game-breaking 3rd-and-long throw to Austin Collie on the first set of the next series. From there, the Colts scored, making it 28-16 and that's how it finished.
I beg all of you NFL critics and story writers to be a little more skeptical of the Colts' 13-0 record. They remind me a lot of the 13-0 Denver Broncos of 1996. Young and talented on the outside with a veteran presence at quarterback. That team lost a heartbreaker at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars led by Tom Coughlin.
If I were predicting a playoff result right now, my guess is the Colts do not win their first home game. I think they are ripe for the playoff upset. Also, give the Denver Broncos a little more credit. As the fifth seed in the AFC right now, Denver should be considered a team to be reckoned with.
With two relatively easy matchups with rivals Kansas City and Oakland remaining on their schedule and a road matchup with the very good Philadelphia Eagles, Denver will most likely be playing the Bengals or Patriots on Wild Card Weekend.
If I were one of those teams and it works out that way, you better have all your guns ready because the Broncos can bring it when they're on.
Successfully moving the ball down the field through the air, McDaniels again called a very conservative first down run. A coach who has been more than enthusiastic on the sidelines and has brought a new life to Denver Broncos footbal.
He absolutely destroyed them in two straight playoff games in 2003 and 2004. In 2003, Manning through four first half touchdowns and finished with a perfect passer rating.
He led the Colts to a 31-3 halftime lead and they finished it off by winning 41-10. The following season, Denver had to travel to Indianapolis for their first playoff game. In pretty much a repeat performance, Manning threw for 457 yards and four touchdowns. At halftime, the score was 35-3 and the Broncos had no answer for the 2003 and 2004 NFL MVP.
In 2006, Denver got a chance for payback against the Colts. Their hopes were dashed again when Manning came in to town. He threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, all to wideout, Reggie Wayne. The Broncos kept it close by holding the Colts to only six first half points.
Manning found his groove in the second half. The Colts defeated the Broncos 34-31 and kept their perfect record in tact at the time. 2007 was no different than the previous three chances. In a Week Four battle, the Colts dominated the second half at home and defeated the Broncos 38-20.
Peyton Manning again threw for three touchdowns and added a running touchdown to his unbelievable statistics against the Denver Broncos. Beyond those games you have to go back to 1993 for the last time the Broncos won a meaningful game against the Indianapolis Colts. They did defeat the Colts in week 16 of the '03-'04 season and week 17 of the '04-'05 season. Both games meant absolutely nothing to the Colts.
They were going to be the third seed in the AFC no matter what the outcome was in both of those games. It just happen to turn out that they would end up having Denver as their opening round playoff opponent in both seasons.