Monday September 8th, 2014

The defending AFC champion Denver Broncos avenged a 2013 loss by downing the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, 31-24. Three quick reactions to that game:

1. Missed chances spelled doom for Indianapolis: According to a graphic flashed by NBC, the Broncos are now 178-0-1 all-time when leading by 17 points or more in the fourth quarter. Despite falling behind 24-7 at the half, the Colts still could have dropped that first loss in there were it not for a repeated string of self-inflicted wounds. In the fourth quarter alone, the Colts saw two drives fizzle in Denver territory, one on an Andrew Luck interception and their final attempt to tie the game via a turnover on downs.

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The problems started long before that for the Colts, however. On their first possession of the night, they lined up for a field goal on 4th-and-1 at the Broncos' 36, only to take a delay of game and punt. Luck fired his first INT just a few minutes later. And Denver stuffed the Colts at the goal line early in the third quarter, Luck trying to QB sneak his way in from a yard out on fourth down.

Even an extra three points here or there would have put the Colts in a better position to steal the game late. Instead, the Broncos held on despite faltering on offense themselves in the second half.

"When our defense had to make stops," Peyton Manning told NBC's Michelle Tafoya, "they did it."

Denver's D deserves that credit, especially for holding Indianapolis to just seven points before halftime. The Colts nonetheless will head home wondering what might have been.

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2. Julius Thomas is going to get paaaaaaid: Broncos GM John Elway said back in July that tight end Julius Thomas, who is set to become a free agent after this season, is "not at that level" of Jimmy Graham. Whatever gap there was may be closing.

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Thomas wasted little time proving that his 2013 breakthrough was no fluke, dominating the Colts to the tune of seven catches (on eight targets, a healthy 87.5 percent success rate), 104 yards and three touchdowns. Some shoddy Indianapolis coverage helped on a couple of those TDs -- Thomas came wide open on his 35-yard score, then the Colts tried to cover him one-on-one with LaRon Landry at the goal line for his final six. 

Either way, there's little question that Thomas remains a Peyton Manning favorite.

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"Julius had a good offseason, I think he's improved since last season," Manning said. "He had a great year last year, he and I spent a lot of time working this offseason. He wanted to step his game up, and I think he did that tonight."

The usual reminder on Thomas: He's still developing as a player, with just one year of college football under his belt before landing in the pros. His production only stands to increase, the 788 yards receiving he had last season looking like the floor for his projections in '14. 

This Denver offense is tailor-made for a versatile playmakers, part of why Thomas is of such value. On his first TD, Thomas lined up offset from the left tackle, then slipped underneath Indianapolis' defense at the goal line; later, on the matchup with Landry, he was isolated to Manning's right. As New Orleans does with Graham, Denver consistently shifts Thomas around the field to find him favorable matchups.

Thomas' lone mistake on the night actually came on special teams. With Denver up 31-17 in the fourth quarter with about 7 minutes left, Thomas muffed an onside kick recovery that he should have had right into the Colts' hands. But his defense bailed him out with an interception a few plays later.

3. Ahmad Bradshaw should be the Colts' No. 1 running back: No matter which method of analysis you want to rely on here -- statistics, the eye test, etc. -- Ahmad Bradshaw was more effective than Trent Richardson on Sunday night. Bradshaw piled up 85 yards on just eight touches; Richardson totaled 51 on nine attempts. Those numbers include a 5.0 to 3.3 yards-per-carry advantage in Bradshaw's favor. 

What they do not tell is that Bradshaw, despite a rocky first few drives against Denver, also offers superior blocking to the more ballyhooed Richardson. Add it all up and aside from, say, not wanting to burn out Bradshaw after multiple injury-plagued years, there is little reason for Richardson to stick as Indianapolis' starting back.

Richardson and Bradshaw were hampered again Sunday by an Indianapolis line that continues to have trouble moving defenders off the line. Which is all the more reason for offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to get Andrew Luck into the shotgun, push the hurry-up attack and get the multi-dimensional Bradshaw on the field.

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