The King is dead; long live the King!
While monarchic rules of succession usually transfer the crown from king to heir at the moment of death, football rarely gives us moments that so clearly define the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Tonight, Andrew Luck and his Indianapolis Colts went into Denver and showed the reigning AFC champions who's boss.
Let's put aside the incredible storyline of Peyton Manning's tenure with the Colts, the injury that put the Colts in position to draft Luck and Luck's availability pushing Manning out the door. Let's not even mention Manning's incredible, record-setting performances en route to 38 regular-season wins in three seasons. Forget about Manning's historic achievement, meeting the franchise he built into a champion with so much at stake, as detailed by Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com:
In the AFC Divisional Round, even the Broncos' red-hot 6-1 start to the season didn't mean anything. Manning, fighting a thigh injury, had literally limped down the regular-season stretch, and the Broncos limped with him. Instead of crushing all comers, as they had been, the Broncos squeaked out wins against mediocre foes.
After the No. 1 seed New England Patriots crushed them 43-21 on Nov. 2, the Broncos only played one other playoff team in the second half of the regular season: the Cincinnati Bengals. In that Week 16 debacle, Manning had a disastrous four-pick implosion. His performance on Sunday wasn't as bad as that one, but completing 56.5 percent of his passes for a minuscule 4.6 yards per attempt and one touchdown…well, it wasn't much better.
On the other side of the ball, Luck wasn't nearly as transcendent as he'd been against the Bengals in the Wild Card Round—but he didn't need to be.
Against Denver's talented, physical defense, a more conservative Luck completed a relatively low 62.8 percent of his passes for 6.2 average yards per attempt and two touchdowns. He also threw two inexplicable deep-ball picks that much of football Twitter pronounced "armpunts."
Unlike Manning, though, he was able to zip big throws when he needed to:
The Colts, with tailback Trent Richardson a healthy scratch for the game, even managed a semblance of balance: Dan "Boom" Herron picked up 63 grueling yards on 23 carries. Of course, that's just 2.8 yards per carry, but many came in the fourth quarter when the Colts needed to run clock.
Between Herron, Luck, Zurlon Tipton and receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Colts gained 99 yards on the ground. Only four teams have managed more against the Broncos this season, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
That the Colts were able to stick an 8:14 scoring drive on the Broncos in the middle of the fourth quarter tells you much of what you need to know about how the Colts offensive line fared against the talent-laden Broncos defense. The other piece you need to know: Andrew Luck wasn't even sacked once all game.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts secondary showed absolutely no respect for Manning whatsoever. Indy spent almost the entire game in aggressive Cover 1 looks, with cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler pressing the dangerous Broncos receivers. Defenses only play like that against playmaking receivers if they have no respect for the quarterback's ability to beat them deep…and it appears they didn't.
Manning looked awful. He needed to launch high, slow rainbows incredibly early if he wanted to go deep at all, and he missed an open Emmanuel Sanders multiple times. Sanders finished with seven catches for just 46 yards. Demaryius Thomas, one of the most physically dominant receivers in the game, had just five catches for 59 yards and Manning's only touchdown.
The Colts had the 19th-ranked scoring defense this season. Though they've played well down the stretch, they looked like the 2004 New England Patriots against Manning's Broncos. One can only imagine what the 2014 Patriots would have done to the Broncos in the rematch next week.
Luck and the Colts are the heir apparent to the crown. Not only did they beat the defending AFC champions, but they have a nucleus of talent just hitting its prime. Should general manager Ryan Grigson draft and sign wisely over the next few seasons, there's every reason to believe we're at the dawn of a new era in the AFC. As Manning himself proved in Indianapolis, it's possible the Colts don't even need to do that to remain perennial contenders.
The Colts opened as seven-point underdogs in the AFC Championship Game, per OddsShark. Given how well the Patriots have played for most of the season—including a 42-20 defeat of the Colts in Indianapolis back in November—that's no surprise. Even if Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots trip Luck and the Colts up on the way to the AFC title this season, Luck's time as a dominant quarterback has arrived.
As wonderful as Manning's career has been and as blessed as we've all been to watch him play over the season, this is what it comes down to: He was given one of the most talented, balanced supporting casts in football, and fell far, far short of expectations…again.
In three seasons, Manning and the Broncos racked up an incredible 38 wins. In two of those three seasons, they were upset at home in the divisional round after earning a bye. In the other, of course, they were embarrassingly routed in the Super Bowl.
"We had goals," Broncos head coach John Fox said in his postgame press conference. "Obviously, we fell short of those goals."
Whether Manning remains the Broncos' quarterback, retires, or something else occurs, Fox might take the blame for the Broncos' failure. Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, as transcribed by Pro Football Talk, reported on Fox NFL Sunday that the head coach could be fired if the Colts sent the Broncos home early.
As talented as this roster is, as close as the Broncos have been and seem to be, they just haven't been good enough. One way or the other, the Manning-Fox era in Denver is all but officially over—and Luck is officially writing the first chapters of his own postseason legend.