The only undefeated entity in the history of sports is Father Time, and he's been making quite a few visits to Peyton Manning's house lately. No doubt one of the most brilliant and prolific quarterbacks in NFL history, Manning has nonetheless been vulnerable this season in ways he hadn't been before. And in Denver's 24-13 home divisional loss to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, Manning played one of the worst games of his career. He wasn't making the kind of epic mistakes we saw early in his career, counterbalanced with amazing displays of acumen. No, against the Colts, and through much of this season, Manning simply looked done. And as impressive as the Colts were in tearing through the defending AFC champions to progress to this year's championship round against the New England Patriots, Manning's seemingly inevitable end may be the main story to come out of this game.
And that's fair enough. The current Colts, led by the transcendent Luck, will have several more shots at the postseason spotlight at this current rate. But this game looked enough like a finale for Manning to note that it may be just that.
Three thoughts from Sunday afternoon's game:
1. Peyton Manning's arm strength wasn't the only problem.
On the first Denver drive it appeared that the Manning on the field Sunday afternoon was not the Peyton Manning who had struggled with the deep ball and in the red zone over the last few weeks. Whatever was previously ailing Manning -- most likely an arm strength issue -- was off the table when he made a beautiful rainbow of a pass to tight end Julius Thomas for 32 yards to the Indianapolis two-yard line with 10:40 left in the first quarter. Two plays later, Manning -- who had targeted Demaryius Thomas 16 times and completed just one in the previous five weeks -- hit Thomas for a two-yard touchdown. It had been a problem before, with Manning completing just 39 percent of his red zone passes in the last weeks of the regular season (only Blake Bortles and Robert Griffin III were less efficient), but that issue evaporated against the Colts -- for exactly one drive. Then, as if Manning was forced to give a gift back after a brief test drive, he returned to mortality. Finishing with 26 completions in 46 attempts for 211 yards and a touchdown, Manning looked like a second-stringer -- and the problem is, that's not the first time that's happened of late.
Manning lost the ball on a sack fumble early in the second quarter when rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome broke through and got to him, and the Colts capitalized on their next drive to take a 14-7 lead. It was a lead they would never relinquish, primarily because Manning couldn't match what Andrew Luck was doing on the other side of the equation. While Luck was elusive, tough, resilient and pinpoint with his passes, Manning was erratic and inconsistent in ways he's rarely been -- even in those bad stretches earlier this season.
Manning overthrew Emmanuel Sanders twice on Denver's drive after that Indy score, leading to a three-and-out. And on the next Denver drive, Manning overthrew Demaryius Thomas and then Sanders again. Manning couldn't make throws with velocity, and the timing with his targets was way off as a result.
“Those were my decisions," Manning said of the errant deep throws. "A couple of them were called to go that way. A couple of them had some other options with it and some other options with it and some shorter passes with it. I ended up taking some long shots. So yeah, any time you lose a game, you always look to some incompletions and throws you’d like to have back. I know I had two to Emmanuel where I thought he was open. I thought I could hit him and I just overthrew him a little bit. So those were two in particular I’d like to have back. I thought they could have been potential touchdown plays. And then some other ones, I possibly could have, probably should have gone to a shorter throw.”
Now, it did help that head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky put together a brilliant gameplan -- they schemed to take away the middle of the field, betting on Manning's inability to consistently throw deep with optimal timing. It was not unlike what the Seahawks did to Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII, and it worked like a charm. By the time the Broncos started to throw shorter passes to try and extend drives in the fourth quarter, it was too little, too late.
As to the subject of his NFL future, Manning sounded uncertain after the loss.
"I’ve used this line before but I can’t give you a -- I’m not smart enough to be able to answer every single question about reasons for things," he said. "But I think I’ve always taken a pretty accurate look and fair evaluation of myself. I think I’m as honest with myself as anybody else is and probably as critical of myself as anybody else is. Didn’t play well enough today and didn’t play well enough consistently in the second half of the season, especially in the games that we lost. Those are things that you’d like to be able to play better.”
The Broncos clearly have a key decision to make when it comes to Manning's future, as does Manning. What if both sides decide that it's all over for the future Hall of Famer? Or, for a more intriguing angle, what happens if Manning wants to come back and the Broncos are compelled to move on? Could be an offseason of intrigue in the Mile High City. This is a franchise that rebuilt its defense in the wake of last season's Super Bowl loss, and the Broncos don't see themselves as a one-and-done squad.
2. T.Y. Hilton can wreck an entire defense.
Denver cornerback Aqib Talib had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, and it was primarily Hilton's fault. Talib has been one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL over the last few seasons, and he played very well for the Broncos in 2014, allowing a 72.2 opponent passer rating and picking off four passes. But there are types of players who give other players fits, and it was clear from the start of this game that Talib had no idea what to do with T.Y. Hilton, the Colts' speedy receiver who can light defenders up outside or in the slot. (Talib was also holding tight end Dwayne Allen on Allen's second-quarter touchdown, and Allen just waved him off.)
It was Hilton that bedeviled Denver's defense, frequently roaming untouched through wide-open spaces in the middle of the Broncos' all-too-passive formations, finishing his day with four receptions for 72 yards, and providing a threat by taking the guy Denver seems to value the most in coverage off the table for most of the day. In truth, cornerback Chris Harris has been better than Talib this season, and Harris would have been a better defender against HIlton, because Harris can play outside and in the slot, and because Harris is a bit quicker off the snap. Add that mistake to the lack of blitz pressure on Andrew Luck, and it's safe to say that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio did not have his finest afternoon.
3. The Colts could be a tough out against the Patriots -- if Andrew Luck has learned from his mistakes.
When the Colts last faced the Patriots, who they'll play in the AFC title game, it was Nov. 16, and Andrew Luck completed 23-of-39 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 42-20 loss. That was a sight better than the time before, in last season's divisional round, when the Colts lost 43-22 and Luck looked totally confused, throwing four interceptions and taking three sacks. Luck is not the kind of guy who frequently regresses, but as it generally was with his predecessor in Indianapolis, Luck appears to see the headlights too often when facing Bill Belichick's defense. The current version of the Patriots has a defensive unit with diverse and complex coverages, and Luck will be in for it, win or lose.
“I’d like to think I’m a better quarterback and we’re a better team and more well-equipped to handle the unknown and the unforeseen," Luck said of that next step. "I think we’ve got a bunch of good football players, and a chance to go up New England and play them and get another crack at it is awesome. We’ll make sure to take full-advantage of it and do what we can.”
For the Colts to pull the upset, Luck will have to be on his best game, his offensive line will need to play as it did against Denver (spectacularly, for the most part), and his running game will have to show up. It's not impossible, but if Luck hasn't learned from his mistakes, beating the Broncos might be all this Colts team has in it.