INDIANAPOLIS -- Don't be fooled by this one. The closeness of the final score didn't tell the whole story, because this was no fluke. A celebrated homecoming might have distracted us for a while, but for most of the night, this was more of a mismatch than a memorable meeting of the Indianapolis Colts' past and present.
The Colts who throttled the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos 39-33 Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, knocking them from the greatly thinned ranks of the NFL's unbeaten, are a team to be reckoned with this season.
This is a Colts team that in the season's opening seven weeks has beaten San Francisco on the road, and Seattle and Denver at home, by an average of almost 11 points per game. Those three playoff perennials have a combined four losses, and Indianapolis is responsible for three of them. Who else can match that feat?
This is a Colts team that has yet to lose consecutive games in the 23-game Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era, and is 16-7 with a playoff trip in that span.
And this is a Colts team that has now six times been a home-field underdog in the past two seasons, but has won straight up every time in that situation, going 6-0 and covering the spread. Clearly Luck and Co. do not mind being underestimated.
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Add it all up and I'm not even sure why this was considered a surprise, that the Colts held serve against the mighty Broncos, sending them winging their way back West with their first loss of the season and a host of questions about themselves. By the end of the night, the Broncos and Manning were reduced to just hoping they get another shot at the Colts, come playoff time.
"Hopefully we'll have a chance to play them again, in the playoffs,'' Manning said. "That's a long way off and there's a lot to do before then, but I certainly see them in the playoffs. This is just a game we need to learn from.''
The Manning-Luck spectacle aside, the torch passing that might have occurred in this game centered not so much on just the quarterback showdown, but how Indianapolis and its fourth-ranked defense emerged from this game as the team to beat in the AFC as the regular season approaches the mid-point. The Colts were dominant for long stretches of this much-anticipated game, and Manning's return to the city where he spent 14 seasons was anything but triumphant.
The Broncos took an early 7-0 lead, but the Colts scored 33 of the game's next 40 points, to build what seemed to be an insurmountable 33-14 cushion late in the third quarter. Manning and the Broncos made it uncomfortably close with a 16-point fourth quarter rally, but when all was said and done, Denver was held 11 points under its NFL-best 44.2 point per game average, and finished well shy of the 476 yards per game it had averaged in the season's first six weeks, totaling 429. Denver turned the ball over four times, while the Colts sacked Manning four times, and frustrated the heck out of the Broncos in the middle two quarters, at one point forcing five consecutive punts and holding Denver to one first down over a span of seven possessions.
If you tuned into just that portion of the game, you never would have believed the Broncos would crack 30 points on this night, or that the Colts were ever expected to lose this big-stage reunion game.
"Well, [the Colts] are the first team to beat us, so I think if you look at that, you'd say they were tough,'' said Broncos head coach John Fox. "They're an outstanding team. But any time you turn the ball over four times, especially on the road, it's going to be tough.''
Luck more than rose to the occasion, throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-38 passing, with no interceptions and a 99.5 rating. But it was Indy's defense that turned the tide in the home team's favor, with no play more crucial than rush linebacker Robert Mathis' strip sack of Manning at the Denver goal line with 8:52 left in the first half. The ball went out of the Broncos' end zone resulting in a safety which cut the Broncos' lead to 14-12, but the Colts got the ball back via the ensuing punt and quickly scored on a 20-yard Luck pass to fullback Stanley Havili. The safety wound up sparking a 23-0 Colts run that effectively buried the high-scoring Broncos too deeply for even Manning to dig out of.
"[That play by Mathis] was huge,'' Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "Unbelievable. [Manning] had only been sacked five times going into the game. Timing and rhythm offense, nobody does it better than he does it. It's hard to get to him. But that strip sack and the safety was huge. Great turning point.''
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Manning simply wasn't the same confident quarterback after getting hit by Mathis, and his typical passing precision deserted him on the next five meaningful Denver drives, all of which ended in punts. Manning was off-target on at least a half-dozen passes in that stretch, with Indy's pass defense winning a string of one-on-one matchups against receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. The Broncos clearly hadn't faced such tight coverage all season, and by the time they responded, it was too late.
"I thought they played excellent on defense,'' said Manning, who completed 29-of-49 for 386 yards, with three touchdowns, an interception and the fumble that led to the safety. "And our execution was not as good as we wanted it to be. Our execution just wasn't as sharp.''
Manning said he couldn't say the crunching hit by Mathis affected him, but it sure looked like it did. He acknowledged it was a "good hit, a healthy one as I would call it,'' but the Colts victory clearly belonged as much to their defense as it did Luck. Denver was a paltry 31 percent on third downs (5-of-16), after converting at an NFL-best 57 percent entering the game. The aggressive play by Indianapolis also helped forced the Broncos into a whopping 12 penalties for 103 yards, with Denver defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson committing three personal fouls to lead the parade of flags.
The backdrop of the game with Manning's dramatic return and Colts owner Jim Irsay's controversial comments made for an irresistible pregame storyline, but after the Colts and the crowd gave Manning a warm ovation and a video tribute just before kickoff, the rest was highlighted by the action on the field. Manning called it "a great reception,'' and a "special minute and a half there,'' but the Colts saved their biggest statement for the game, and made Manning accept second billing by night's end.
Manning said he didn't speak with Irsay on Sunday, but that the two spoke late in the week, with the ex-Colt saying he could "move past'' Irsay's recent criticism, and didn't see it being "a lasting factor'' in their relationship.
Luck didn't get caught up in any of that last week, and he made sure his singular focus was on the task at hand Sunday night. Beating Denver would take everyone's best.
"A big game, and a big win against a great Broncos team,'' Luck said. "That's what sticks out. It's big. I'm proud of the guys for just working and trusting the process and not getting caught up in the BS around [the game]. We couldn't let other things distract us, or [the Broncos] would expose us.''
As it turns out, it was the once-unstoppable Broncos who were exposed. Manning represents Indy's storied past, but on Sunday night, the Colts scored one for the future. At 5-2, Indianapolis hits its bye next week with a two-game lead over second-place Tennessee (3-4) and three games in hand over two-time defending AFC South champion Houston (2-5).
These Colts are for real, and we should have all known that even before they proved it once again in prime time. There was nothing flukey about it. Just ask the Broncos.