AFC South: Denver Broncos

INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts starting linebacker Erik Walden, safety Sergio Brown and center Khaled Holmes are questionable for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, coach Chuck Pagano said Friday.

Walden practiced Friday despite dealing with an abdominal injury. Rookie Jonathan Newsome is listed behind Walden on the team’s depth chart.

All indications continue to point to Holmes not playing against the Broncos because of the sprained ankle that kept him sidelined for almost four weeks. Pagano said they haven’t decided who will start if Holmes can’t play, but don’t be surprised to see A.Q. Shipley, whom the Colts claimed off waivers from Baltimore last weekend, start because he has experience over undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison.

Brown, a special-teams ace, is dealing with an ankle injury, too.

Pagano said safety LaRon Landry, receiver Reggie Wayne and right tackle Gosder Cherilus are all probable against the Broncos.

Broncos vs. Colts preview

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:00
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The last time the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos faced each other, the Broncos were rolling along with a 6-0 record, having scored at least 41 points in four of those games and 50 in two. But on Oct. 20, they couldn’t block Indianapolis' Robert Mathis (two sacks and a forced fumble), quarterback Peyton Manning aggravated his ankle injuries, and the Broncos limped away from a 39-33 loss.

This time, the Colts will see a newly minted defense -- just five players remain from the Super Bowl XLVIII roster -- and the Broncos will see a Colts team that has battled injuries throughout the preseason and is without Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday night’s game.

Wells: Not that Manning needs any motivation to get better year to year, but how much did the embarrassing Super Bowl loss fuel him during the offseason and in training camp, especially because the clock is ticking on his career?

Legwold: Mike, as folks in Indianapolis saw for quite some time, Manning is a study in focus, and he simply attacked the offseason. He said once he decided he was all-in for the coming season, and his annual exam on his neck came back with a medical thumbs-up, he went about the business of taking last season apart -- league-record 606 points, Super Bowl blowout and all -- pass by pass. He looked at his incompletions, interceptions, touchdowns, plays that should have been touchdowns and plays that should have been interceptions. He essentially took his game back to the foundation. Coach John Fox says Manning looks stronger physically than in his previous two seasons in Denver, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning has shown more arm strength in workouts. Put it all together and it’s pretty clear Manning is locked in on getting another shot at the trophy.

Keeping with the quarterbacks, where do the Colts believe quarterback Andrew Luck is on his developmental curve? This is decidedly his team, correct?

Wells: I’d say it became Luck’s team once they selected him No. 1 overall in 2012. That is not a bad thing when you take into account Luck has led the Colts to 22 wins, two playoff appearances and an AFC South title in his first two seasons. Did I mention that he is only 24? Not that Luck needs any pats on the back, but you could tell how he is perceived by others when our ESPN.com colleague Mike Sando talked to executives around the league and they said he is a top-five NFL quarterback. There is nothing wrong with being voted behind Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Those are four future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Colts have a chance to beat any team, including the Broncos, as long as No. 12 is taking the snaps for them.

The Colts' issue is whether the defense can play on the same level as Luck and the offense. The Broncos went out and added some substantial pieces to their defense. Can the defense be as good as Manning and the offense?

Legwold: If it isn’t, it won’t be because the Broncos didn’t make the effort. They made an almost unprecedented dive into free agency for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, adding defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. They also used their first-round pick in the May draft on cornerback Bradley Roby. All four players will get significant snaps against the Colts on Sunday night. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wanted more speed on defense and more attitude. The Broncos, who had five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they got to the Super Bowl, also have a healthy Von Miller back at linebacker and Chris Harris at cornerback. They have not shown much in the preseason, so the Colts will get the first real look at this unit. But Miller and Ware give Denver the kind of one-two pairing in the pass rush it had with Miller and Elvis Dumervil in 2012, when this was a top-five defense.

Defensively, Mathis is suspended for the first four games of the season. The previous time these teams played, Mathis was the most disruptive defensive player on the field. What is the Colts’ plan to get to Manning this time around?

Wells: How about we say: What do the Colts hope to do without Mathis? As you pointed out, Mathis was the difference-maker in the game last year. His strip-sack of Manning was a momentum changer because it led to a safety and started a string of 23 straight points for Indy. Bjoern Werner is starting at outside linebacker in place of Mathis. But let’s be real, there is no replacing Mathis' 19.5 sacks from last season. The Colts will attempt to do it by committee. The starting defense accounted for only two sacks in the preseason. That is pretty scary to think about. Manning is the master of picking apart defenses.

I was going to ask you about Wes Welker and his concussion issues. Now the Colts don’t have worry about facing him because he has been suspended for the first four games of the season. How do the Broncos go about replacing Welker in the lineup?

Legwold: Welker’s suspension is the reason the Broncos will have to adjust their rotation at wide receiver Sunday night, but they had put plans in motion long before because of Welker’s concussions. He had two last season and suffered a third in an Aug. 23 preseason game. The Broncos made Emmanuel Sanders a primary target in free agency and used a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer in May. Sanders, who has shown in the preseason just how big a year he could have in this offense, will get plenty of work in the slot; he played there during most of his tenure with the Steelers. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who played in the slot a great deal in Manning’s first year in Denver (2012), will also get plenty of snaps. The Broncos will move the pass-catchers all over in search of the matchups they like. They have a versatile group of receivers and tight ends that should allow them to overcome four games without Welker.

A different kind of injury issue to be sure, and you have written about it plenty, but how will the Colts adjust things on the offensive line to line up against a revamped Broncos defense?

Wells: The offensive line has been an issue for the Colts going back to when Manning was there. Luck has his best group of offensive weapons to work with since entering the league, but none of that matters if the line can’t do its job. Luck has been sacked 73 times in his first two seasons. The Colts have a rookie -- Jack Mewhort -- starting at one guard, a second-year player -- Hugh Thornton -- at the other guard, and center is up the air. Khaled Holmes, the projected starter, missed four weeks with a sprained ankle, and A.Q. Shipley was claimed off waivers from Baltimore last weekend. Ware and the rest of the Denver defense should be excited about the opportunity to get after Luck.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The start of the free agency is less than two weeks away. Receiver is one of the positions that the Indianapolis Colts need to address through free agency, trade or the draft.

It’s about the present and the future for them at that position.

Decker
Depth was an issue for the Colts at the start of last season. It was a bigger issue when Reggie Wayne crumbled to the ground with a torn ACL against Denver in Week 7 and it remained an issue when the season ended last month.

The Colts can't get away with not adding any players at receiver. All indications point to Wayne returning from his knee injury, but you have to be realistic, too. Nobody knows what type of player he’ll be when he returns because he’s 35 years old. That leaves T.Y. Hilton and young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen.

This takes us to the free-agent market. There was a report Wednesday that the Colts have interest in Denver receiver Eric Decker.

Decker is looking for a big payday like all free agents do. He told SiriusXM NFL Radio in an interview earlier this month that he needs to do what is the “best for my family.”

The Colts will have money to spend – the fourth-most salary cap space – but they’re going to be frugal spenders with all their money. That's bascially what general manager Ryan Grigson said last week at the combine.

Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

My issue with Decker is that you can't pay him like he’s a No. 1 receiver because he’s not a No. 1 receiver. He's more of a solid No. 2 receiver. He put up those nice numbers while not having to face the other team's best cornerback. Things could be different if Decker's asking price isn’t too much.

And if that’s the case, why leave Peyton Manning and Denver when you have a chance to make at least one more run at winning the Super Bowl?

Here's a look at some 2013 stats of some notable wideouts who are set to hit the free-agent market:

Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

Live blog: Titans at Broncos

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
2:30
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Tennessee Titans' visit to the Denver Broncos. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Eric Decker, Jason McCourty AP Photo Jason McCourty, right, and the Titans' secondary face a formidable challenge in defending Eric Decker and the Broncos' passing attack.
It seemed a little out of place, but as the Denver Broncos were about to get to work on the Tennessee Titans this week, quarterback Peyton Manning said he was going to prepare for an "unfamiliar opponent."

Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.

Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?

Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.

Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?

Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.

On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?

Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.

The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?

Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.

Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?

Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.

Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?

Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.

Pagano on Fox, Kubiak health issues

November, 4, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It's understandable that the subject had Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano pausing between sentences. He was right there with Denver coach John Fox and Houston coach Gary Kubiak last season.

And that's why Fox and Kubiak's recent health issues hit home with Pagano. The Colts coach said he recently reached out to both coaches to let them know that the team's praying for them.

Pagano
Fox had surgery Monday to replace a valve in his heart after he became dizzy while playing golf in North Carolina and was later taken to a hospital during the team's bye week over the weekend. It's unknown when he'll return to coaching the Broncos.

Kubiak collapsed while heading to the locker room at halftime of Sunday's game against the Colts. He was immediately taken to the hospital.

"Hopefully they get things taken care of and get their health back," Pagano said. "We're lucky. We're playing a kid's game. Our players are playing a kid's game, but real life is real life. If you don't have your health, you really don't have nothing."

Pagano missed 12 games last season while he took a leave of absence to battle leukemia.

"I feel very fortunate, obviously to have behind me what I went through," he said. "But the game is the game. When it comes to a guy's health and those things those guys are dealing with now is not easy. This game could be hard on you as we know."

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Gangulia wrote after the game Sunday that Kubiak's departure impacted the players in the second half, which isn't surprising because you're talking about somebody's life in that situation. The Colts outscored the Texans 24-3 in the second half to come from behind and win 27-24.

Bruce Arians filled in while Pagano was out last season, but he missed their playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens after he became ill that morning.

"It's got to affect you," Pagano said about the Texans not having Kubiak in the second half. "It's hard. A tough, tough situation."

Colts next to try to slow Manning down

October, 18, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Greg Manusky had bags under his eyes and his voice was raspy as he stood at the podium addressing the media Thursday afternoon.

If you didn’t know the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator had been battling a cold, you would think he looked and sounded like that because he hadn’t slept for several days because he had consumed all hours trying to figure out a way to slow down a Peyton Manning offense that has left defenses looking foolish and frustrated.

[+] EnlargeChuck Pagano
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCoach Chuck Pagano and the Colts have been studying up all week on how to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Pagano: "It's a challenge."
“It’s always hard trying to get as much information to see what he does and what he’s looking at and how to disrupt him as much as you can,” Manusky said. “But yeah, it’s hard.”

The Broncos have yet to be slowed down on offense this season. The closest any team has come to slowing the Broncos down -- if you want to call it that -- came Sept. 23 when Oakland limited them to 10 points in the second half.

Denver, Manning in particular, has set the standard offensively this season. Per game, the Broncos lead the league in scoring (44.2), total yards (476) and passing yards (360.7). Manning has thrown 22 touchdowns, two interceptions and he’s only been sacked five times.

The Broncos have four receivers with at least 31 catches this season.

Now it’s understandable why Manusky likely hasn’t slept since he got off the plane from San Diego early Tuesday morning.

“You’re looking at an offense, you look at the stat sheet and they’re ranked one at just about every category,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “It’s a challenge. We’re going to put our time in regardless. We just know that the challenge is a great one cause they’ve got a great one coming in here. First-ballot Hall of Famer (Manning) under center and all that stuff. Great wideouts, runners, offensive line. Across the board, it’s going to be a huge challenge.”

There isn’t a defense Manning hasn’t seen in his career. You may be able to rattle him early, but he’s the mastermind of getting ahead of the defense because of his ability to adjust accordingly. Colts fans spent 13 seasons (he was injured in his final season) watching Manning walk up to the line of scrimmage and make the proper changes based off how the defense was playing.

That will be the case again on Sunday. Pagano wouldn’t give the slightest hint on how they plan to attempt to slow the former Colt down. Pagano joked that he should just head over to the Broncos’ team hotel in Indianapolis and leave their defensive plan at the front desk for them if he talked about their scheme.

“Everybody knows Peyton,” safety LaRon Landry said. “Great quarterback, one of the best. You really have to be sound in your coverage, give different looks, disguises. For us, it’s all about what we create, what we do on the back end and just disguising and playing sound coverage. Peyton is going to be Peyton. He’s going to make some plays, we have to respond.”

The Broncos can’t be knocked because they’ve done their job by winning. It should be noted, though, that the combined record of their six opponents is 11-25 this season.

The Colts have been solid defensively for most of the season, but the 11th best unit in the league picked a bad time to have a setback.

The San Diego Chargers had the ball for 38 minutes and 31 seconds and were 7-of-14 on third down against the Colts on Monday.

Just imagine how many points Manning can put up if given that much time with the ball. The Broncos only need the ball about 31 minutes a game to average their 44 points a game.

“You want to play against the best,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “That’s every week. Every week as competitors in the NFL, you want to play against the best. You got beat the best to be the best. It’s going to be fun.”

Double Coverage: Broncos at Colts

October, 18, 2013
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There will always be games when a player returns, with his new team and wearing a new set of NFL colors, to the city where he once worked. Happens all the time.

And then there is this week. When the former face of a franchise, a future Hall of Famer, returns, not as a legend in the final days of his career, but as a 37-year-old vying for the league's MVP award, having the season of his life with a Super Bowl hopeful. Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis as the 6-0 Denver Broncos will meet the 4-2 Indianapolis Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium. ESPN.com Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Colts team reporter Mike Wells break down this week's game.

Legwold: Mike, let's get right to it. Manning. Colts. Indianapolis. There isn't much precedent in the league's history for a player of Manning's stature returning, playing as well as ever, to meet his former team. How has it played there? And just how many of the current Colts were even teammates with Manning?

Wells: As much as I hate to admit it, safety Antoine Bethea, a former Manning teammate, said it best inside the locker room in San Diego on Monday, “We see players come and go all the time,” and that the media will make a big deal about it. Bethea was the first Colt not named Jim Irsay to talk about Manning's return. Coach Chuck Pagano didn't even want to talk about it on Tuesday. There are only 11 players still on the roster from when Manning played here. The Colts respect Manning, but they also want to prove they've moved on and they can win without him.

You've been around Manning for more than a season now. Do you get a sense that he'll be more pumped than what he is every weekend?

Legwold: Manning has already been on the media merry-go-round earlier this season when he faced his brother Eli for the third and likely final time in his career. He didn't like it that much and said as much. I think he certainly will want to show, at least in some way, he appreciated his time with the Colts and that he enjoyed the successes there. In the end he will try to play it straight through the week. That said, when Manning arrived in Denver, those close to him said he was initially surprised the Colts actually released him, even though it made sense financially and for the overall direction of the franchise due to the uncertainty surrounding how he would recover from his neck surgeries. As one of the most competitive people in a league full of competitive people, there is likely a part of him that wants to show what he has left for a team that considers itself to be a Super Bowl contender.

To that end, Andrew Luck has consistently seemed comfortable in his role as the team's leader in the post-Manning era, how do you think he will handle all of this? And will he have some added adrenaline?

Wells: Luck hasn't given any indication that he'll prepare for or approach the game any different. It obviously wasn't the same magnitude as what Sunday will be, but the second-year quarterback was put under the spotlight earlier this season when he returned to the Bay Area, where he starred at Stanford, to take on his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers. Luck played within himself -– 17-of-26 for 159 yards --and I expect him to do the same thing this weekend. Don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tries to get Luck going early in front of the sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. But don't expect to see Luck throwing the ball 45 times unless the Colts dig themselves into a big hole.

I was little surprised Broncos coach John Fox took exception to Colts owner Jim Irsay's comments to USA Today. Is that normal for Fox to respond the way he did?

Legwold: From the Broncos' perspective, some in the organization see it as Irsay gladly reaping the benefits of the Colts' success with Manning at quarterback, including a new stadium that allowed the city to host a Super Bowl, and now acting as if one Super Bowl win in Manning's tenure sticks in his craw. Fox simply came to the defense of his player, something he does when he sees it as necessary and something that only strengthens his standing in the Broncos' locker room. Manning almost always takes the high road publicly in such things, as he did this week, but there isn't much question he has one of the game's longest memories when it comes to what's been written or said.

Much of what is, or isn't said, this week won't matter much once the ball is snapped, but on the field what do you think the Colts' defensive plan will be against the Broncos' offense?

Wells: Don't expect the Colts to sit back in a Cover 2 the way Jacksonville did. That's not defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's style. The cornerbacks will press up on the receivers and they'll continue to gamble to try to make a play. That may not be the right approach to take because as you know, Manning makes teams pay for their mistakes. It'll be interesting to see if Robert Mathis, another one of Manning's former teammates, is able to get off the edge and get to Manning. Mathis is tied for the league lead in sacks with 9.5. The area of concern for the Colts is at linebacker. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the team's leading tackler, had to sit out the second half of last week's game at San Diego with a concussion.

Speaking of linebackers, the Broncos will have Von Miller for the first time this season this weekend. Do you expect him to be rusty after being suspended for the first six games?

Legwold: On the field that may be the biggest question of the week. Miller, under a provision added to the league's collective bargaining agreement in 2006, could attend team meetings during his suspension and work out at the team's strength and conditioning center. He could not practice or attend games. So, all of the on-field work he has done with the strength coaches has been a solo affair. The question will be if he stayed up to speed in the team's defensive playbook – he says he has. He is an impact rusher, a "game-wrecker" as Pagano likes to say (Pagano is a Boulder, Colo., native). Miller's adrenaline will be off the charts, especially early in the game. It wouldn't be a shock for the Colts to test him with a little misdirection early to see if he's up to the challenge. But Miller should have an impact in the pass rush, especially if his conditioning is as good as he says it is.

A lot of folks here are interested to know how Pagano has done healthwise this season following last year's cancer treatments. How important is he to the team's success?

Wells: The fact that Pagano was able to overcome cancer to be back on the sideline coaching at the end of last season is a remarkable story in itself. The players like how he motivates them and is constantly positive. I don't think there are many head coaches in the NFL who would think about heading over to Lowe's (he ended up having somebody else go for him) to purchase mousetraps as a reminder for his team not to overlook winless Jacksonville after beating San Francisco the week before.

So much is said about Denver's passing game, but what about its rushing game? Can it be effective the same way San Diego was last week?

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesVon Miller will make his season debut against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Legwold: Much of the Chargers' offense comes from first-year head coach Mike McCoy -- the Broncos' offensive coordinator last season. Denver certainly noted the success the Chargers had running at the heart of the Colts' defense, especially with a zone run scheme. For all of the talk about how much the Broncos throw the ball, and they throw it with purpose in any down-and-distance situation, they are still fifth in the league in carries with 180, or 30 per game. With Manning at quarterback, with this coaching staff, they will always be pass-first, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase's mentor in the league was Mike Martz. And Martz's high-flying offenses always had a major run-game component.

With the Colts' run game, and with Luck 20th among the league's starters in pass attempts, is there an element of having a system in place that doesn't require Luck to have to do everything for the team to win?

Wells: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held that same role at Stanford with Luck, is big into being a run-first team. The Colts have stuck to that mindset through the first six games. But it'll be interesting if Hamilton loosens things on the offense this season after the Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards last week at San Diego. Luck gives the Colts the best chance to win. They'll need Luck's arm to beat the Broncos because Manning & Co. are going to put points -- a lot of them -- on the board this week. It's hard to imagine the Colts will be able to run the ball well enough to keep Manning on the sidelines looking antsy to get back on the field.

Passing the ball is probably a good idea since the Broncos are last in the league in defending the pass (338 yards a game). Why have the Broncos defended the pass so poorly?

Legwold: Some of it, especially over the first four games of the season, was a good bit of stat padding late in blowouts by opposing offenses. But there is an element that is a personnel issue as well. Elvis Dumervil left in free agency after the fax fiasco in the offseason, Miller was suspended and Champ Bailey missed five games after injuring his left foot in the preseason. That's 17 Pro Bowl appearances from guys who were in the lineup last season when the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks. And they have had some sacks -- 17 thus far -- but those plays have often been clustered near the end of games with the Broncos having built 20-point leads. They haven't consistently pressured opposing passers this season and as a result some of those quarterbacks are finding some openings against a steady diet of man coverage in the Broncos' secondary. They know they have to get to Luck this weekend or he will pick away at them.

That should do it, enjoy the game.

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NFLN Says: Can Luck be Manning?

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
9:00
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Andrew Luck and Peyton ManningGetty ImagesAndrew Luck has shown some of same skills as Peyton Manning. How do they compare?
The past, present and future quarterbacks of the Indianapolis Colts will meet Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, and ESPN's NFL Nation spent part of this week asking players if Andrew Luck is the next Peyton Manning.

Most of us should agree: There will never be another quarterback with Manning's combination of instincts, football intelligence, pocket presence and quick release. Let's not bother with that discussion. But can Luck provide the same essential service to the franchise? Will he guide the Colts at a high level through parts of two decades, as Manning did from 1998-2010?

Luck is off to a good start, having won 15 of his first 22 NFL games. Nine of those victories have come via game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, a topic we will inspect later this week, and he currently is the league's fourth-ranked quarterback via Total QBR. If he continues on that path, history tells us the Colts would have accomplished a rare feat in modern NFL history.

The chart illustrates the immediate transition from each of the nine Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose careers began after 1980. (We took the liberty of adding Brett Favre, eligible in 2016, as a 10th entry. Manning would be No. 11.) Usually, these transitions have failed and teams have taken decades to find a true franchise replacement. (Think: Terry Bradshaw to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Dan Fouts to Philip Rivers in San Diego and -- yes -- John Elway to Manning in Denver.)

In some cases, they're still looking. (We're looking at you, Miami and Buffalo.)

The Green Bay Packers have proved to be the exception. If Aaron Rodgers plays out his seven-year contract, the Packers would have achieved 28 consecutive years of elite quarterback play from him and Favre. Can Luck be the Colts' version of Rodgers? Will he add a two-decade career on top of Manning's tenure?

Here's what ESPN's NFL Nation found:

(Read full post)

Manning's answer to come Sunday

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
6:15
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos like signs. Big ones, small ones, lighted ones, whatever. They have them hanging all over their workplace in south suburban Denver.

And it while it presents an odd sort of contradiction given the people who are supposed to be reading the signs routinely say they don’t need “additional things’’ to fire them up, the signs are there. Most with the big type, bold letters.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Joey Foley/Getty ImagesNeither Peyton Manning nor Jim Irsay looked happy when they parted in 2012.
One of them in one of the building’s high-traffic areas offers one of Broncos coach John Fox’s favorite missives: "WELL DONE IS BETTER THAN WELL SAID."

It comes to mind because folks wanted quarterback Peyton Manning to say something Wednesday. To offer something about what Colts owner Jim Irsay said, something about Irsay's explanation of how frustrated and disappointed he was the team won only one Super Bowl in Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis. That they had "changed" the team's program with Manning's release.

Boom goes the social-media dynamite. Irsay, who spent most of Wednesday on Twitter trying to explain what he meant, held a media gathering in Indianapolis. He said his comments in an interview with veteran USA Today reporter Jarrett Bell were taken out of context. It is just one man’s opinion, but I’ve known Bell a long time and I’m certain what appeared in the story is what was said, exactly in the context it was said.

To be fair, Irsay has said similar things in the weeks and months since the team released Manning in March 2012. But in what is easily a gold medal performance in the timing-is-everything Olympics, Irsay said it this time as Manning and the Broncos approached on his team’s schedule.

Manning’s former coach Tony Dungy -- the guy folks often go to when they want to know what Manning’s thinking when Manning won’t say -- offered a theory to ESPN's Ed Werder. He said Irsay was simply trying to ratchet up the pressure on Manning to "have him make it such a big game he doesn’t perform well. I can’t figure any other reason to go this way." Dungy went on to say the Colts "would be playing in L.A." right now without Manning.

Clearly, and by almost any objective measure, without Manning the Colts wouldn’t have the new stadium that likely provides a comfortable living for Irsay and other Colts executives. Without it, the city would not have hosted a Super Bowl and hosted it well. There is also a certain speed-of-light swirl to this, in that it is all tailor-made for social media, talk radio, television, websites or any other platform where content comes fast and furious. Maybe it all got away from the often-flippant Irsay before he remembered Twitter is fast and forever.

Which brings it all back around to the guy at the center of this -- one Peyton Williams Manning. And when Manning was asked Wednesday to comment about his former boss, he essentially did what he often does when the coin flip falls a certain way, he deferred.

"I don’t have any answer for you on that, or any comment on any of that," he said.

Which means Manning passed on the chance at "well said" and that leaves only "well done."

On Sunday.

Live blog: Jaguars at Broncos

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Jacksonville Jaguars' visit to the Denver Broncos. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Justin Blackmon and Knowshon MorenoUSA TODAY SportsJustin Blackmon and the 0-5 Jaguars face Knowshon Moreno and the 5-0 Broncos.
Already, it has been the subject of the biggest point spread in decades as well as an exchange of tweets from each team's official Twitter handle that included a "stay classy Denver" missive from the Jaguars. But the league's highest-scoring team and the league's lowest-scoring team will meet Sunday when the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars get together at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The Broncos are 5-0 and the Jaguars come in at 0-5 in Gus Bradley's first season as head coach. ESPN.com Jaguars team reporter Michael DiRocco and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this week's game.

Legwold: Michael, it's been a tough go thus far in the first season of the new regime. How have Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell handled it all? And have they grown weary of people saying they should sign Tim Tebow?

DiRocco: Bradley has been amazingly positive with the media and with the players. It's probably the best approach to take because he's got a young team and everyone knew this was going to be a rough season, anyway. It's the only way to keep the players committed to the plan he and Caldwell have in place to turn the franchise around. If he were to all of a sudden go negative, he'd risk losing the team. That doesn't mean he is not acknowledging problems and poor play, but he is trying to be upbeat in doing so. Caldwell has not been as visible, but when he spoke last week, he talked about remaining committed to the long-term rebuilding plan and not trying to find a quick fix. As for the Tebow question, it's a dead issue among Bradley and Caldwell. They're not going to sign him and they're able to ignore the Tebow fervor, which has died down a bit over the past two weeks.

In terms of the Broncos, they are averaging 46 points a game and just scored 51 in a victory over the Dallas Cowboys. They look unstoppable. But what, in your opinion, is their Achilles' heel on offense, and is there a defense out there that can exploit that?

Legwold: They lost All Pro left tackle Ryan Clady earlier this season, and his replacement, Chris Clark, had never started a game at left tackle in his career. Center Manny Ramirez never started an NFL game at the position until the regular-season opener after the Broncos moved him in as the starter in offseason workouts. Overall, the offensive line has played well so far -- Manning's been sacked just five times -- and there might be no player more adept at reading a defense's intentions in the rush and getting rid of the ball accordingly before trouble arrives than Manning. The trouble has come in the run game. The Broncos have had 53 carries this season for 2 or fewer yards because they haven't consistently won the line of scrimmage, even in mop-up situations late in games. So, for all the Broncos have done on offense this season -- and it has been remarkable -- it's still an unanswered question if they could win a slug-it-out affair on a bad-weather day or if Manning was just having a bad outing. But the other question is whether or not anybody could even get them into one of those games.

In terms of quarterback, what do you think the Jaguars' long-term plans are at the position, and if they get a top-three pick in next May's draft, would they pick one?

DiRocco: This season's top priority was finding out if Blaine Gabbert could be the player around which Caldwell and Bradley build the franchise. Instead of relying on preconceived notions, they gave him a clean slate when they arrived. So far, though, Gabbert has missed two games with a hand injury and isn't likely to play Sunday because of a hamstring strain. He hasn't been very good when he has been on the field, either: 44.8 percent completion rate, seven interceptions (three returned for TDs). By the end of the season, management will likely come to the conclusion that Gabbert isn't the answer and they'll have to draft a quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater seems to be the best quarterback available, but a lot can change between now and May. He'd be whom I would take, and the Jaguars might very well agree, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Jaguars traded down to get more picks because this team needs so much help elsewhere.

Speaking of long-term quarterback plans, what are the Broncos thinking there? Manning is approaching 40 and has the neck issue, so he's got only one or two more good seasons in him, right?

Legwold: When he signed with the Broncos in March of 2012, Manning wanted to construct a deal the Broncos could feel good about in terms of their ability to evaluate his physical status after his first season in Denver. At the time, Manning said he didn't want his deal to prevent the team from doing other things if it didn't work out. So, the two sides had it written into his contract that Manning would take a physical exam following his first season in Denver and if his surgically-repaired neck was cleared, it would then engage the next two years of the contract -- 2013 and 2014. Both of those seasons are now guaranteed, so those three years have always been the window people have operated in when discussing his time with the Broncos. However, that was before his assault on the record book this season. He looks stronger than ever. Manning does have two additional years on the deal -- 2015 and 2016 -- but those years are not guaranteed. Manning has always said he won't be a "hang-around" guy, and when he feels he can't compete at the level he wants to -- or no longer wants to go through the arduous preparation at the pace he currently keeps -- that would influence him as well. But on the field, many in the league are saying he's playing better than ever, and he says he still enjoys the day-to-day work it takes to reach that level.

Overall this season, can you tell folks about one or two Jaguars who offer some glimmers of hope for the future and who are performing well amid the team's struggles?

DiRocco: Offensively, it's receivers Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts. Blackmon has played only one game (he was suspended for the first four), but his impact on the offense was immediate -- three catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter against the St. Louis Rams. He's the team's best playmaker and had a fantastic rookie season in 2012 (64 catches, 865 yards, 5 TDs). Shorts (31 catches for 411 yards this season) is in his third season and is on pace for 100 catches. There are two rookies in the secondary who will be the backbone of the defense: safeties Josh Evans (sixth round) and Johnathan Cyprien (second). Cyprien has the size/toughness/coverage mix that's needed in the defensive scheme that Bradley brought over from Seattle. Evans was forced into the starting lineup by an injury to Dwight Lowery in the third game and hasn't missed a snap since. Both are learning on the go, but it's easy to see they're talented.

Jack Del Rio is facing his former team this week. Do you sense that this game means a lot to him because of the way his tenure ended, or is this just another game for him?

Legwold: Del Rio will deflect, and has previously, most any discussion about how his time with the Jaguars ended. So, people shouldn't expect too many public fireworks from him in that regard, but, privately, I'm sure he'd like to see the Broncos dominate. His players like him and they respect him, so they will also want to give him a quality effort in this one. Especially since they just surrendered 506 passing yards and five touchdowns to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo this past Sunday. They've got an awful lot to deal with, so I'm not sure Del Rio will publicly stroll down memory lane too much, but he's in a good spot with the Broncos as far as working day to day for a playoff contender. As far as being a head coach again, he's already been linked to the USC job -- he's publicly said "there's nothing to talk about there" -- and should the Broncos finish strong and play with a little more defensive edge when both Von Miller and Champ Bailey return, he could find himself in the NFL mix as well.

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