Familiar with Patriots: Pagano knows what it’s like to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro, Mass. He was the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator in 2011 when the Patriots beat them 23-20. "Great, great team," Pagano said. "Hall-of-Fame coach, Hall-of-Fame quarterback. We know how hard it is to win up there, so we’re going to worry about us."
Injury free: The only injury scare the Colts had was when cornerback Vontae Davis left the game momentarily late in the first half, but returned for the start of the third quarter.
Three things to know about the Indianapolis Colts' AFC Championship Game matchup at 6:40 p.m. ET Jan. 18 against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
Stop the run: It hasn’t been Patriots quarterback Tom Brady who has owned the Colts in the past two games. It has been New England’s running backs. First, it was LeGarrette Blount in the 2013 playoff matchup and then Jonas Gray ran for 201 of the Patriots’ 244 yards in November. The Colts did a good job of containing Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson in the divisional-round game, holding him to only 80 yards. You can expect the Patriots to use their running game to help set up the play-action pass for Brady.
Luck factor: The Patriots have had Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's number so far in his career. In three career games, all losses, Luck has thrown eight interceptions, including four in the playoff loss to them last season. The Patriots have outscored the Colts 144-66 in three games with Luck. Luck, however, has been smart with the football lately. He threw two interceptions against the Broncos, but they were both third-down heaves that were effectively punts.
Pressure Brady: Just like with Peyton Manning on Sunday, the Colts have to find a way to make Brady uncomfortable. They’ve sacked Brady only two times in the past two meetings. The Colts did intercept him two times in the game in November. Brady was 33-of-50 for 367 yards and three touchdowns in New England’s victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round.
INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 24-13 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday:
What it means: The progression continues for quarterback Andrew Luck. A playoff appearance as a rookie. A second-round trip his second season. And now a trip to the AFC Championship Game for the third-year quarterback. While Luck will get most of the attention because he’s one of the NFL’s young stars, the Colts’ defense deserves a lot of the credit because they were torched by pocket-passing quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo during the regular season. The Colts returned the favor to Manning on Sunday. Manning continued to test the Colts’ secondary, and the Colts’ secondary continued to step up to the challenge and shut down the Broncos. The Colts held Manning to 26-of-46 passing for 211 yards and just one touchdown pass.
Stock watch: The Colts' offensive line gave up three sacks to the Broncos in their Week 1 loss. They kept Broncos pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller off Luck all game and did not give up a sack.
Newsome shines: In the first half, rookie Jonathan Newsome looked like another pass-rush specialist. Newsome came off the edge, blowing by the left tackle and recording a strip-sack of Manning. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman recovered the ball. Somewhere linebacker Robert Mathis, who missed the season because of a suspension and injury, was probably smiling because he’s the master of the strip sack. Newsome led the Colts with 6.5 sacks during the regular season.
Herron shines: Running back Daniel "Boom" Herron continues to be a passing and running threat for the Colts. He ran for 63 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries and had eight catches for 32 yards.
Game ball: The entire Indianapolis defense gets this ball. They shut down Manning and Denver’s offense the entire game outside of a touchdown on the opening drive. They gave up only 288 yards of total offense to the Broncos.
What's next: The Colts advance to their first AFC Championship Game since 2009 to take on the New England Patriots at 6:40 p.m. ET Jan. 18. The Patriots beat the Colts 42-20 on Nov. 16.
COLTS: CB Jalil Brown, RB Trent Richardson, CB Sheldon Price, LB Henoc Muamba, OL Xavier Nixon, OL Jonotthan Harrison, DL Zach Kerr
BRONCOS: WR Cody Latimer, CB Tony Carter, RB Juwan Thompson, OL Paul Cornick, OL Michael Schofield, TE Dominique Jones, DL Mitch Unrein
The big news -- actually, it's not that big of a deal -- is that Richardson is inactive Sunday for the Colts. It's not a big deal because Richardson has been a disappointment since the Colts acquired him from Cleveland in September 2013.
Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, lost his starting job to Donald Brown late in the 2013 season. He regained it this season, but lost it to Daniel “Boom” Herron in Week 16 and Richardson was the third running back behind Herron and Zurlon Tipton in last week's playoff game against Cincinnati. Richardson only played one snap against the Bengals.
Richardson spent time practicing with special teams last week. He's yet to rush for 100 yards in a game and has only totaled 977 yards in 29 games with the Colts.
Now you have to wonder if the one snap Richardson played against the Bengals is the last time you'll him in a Colts uniform.
@ESPNdirocco: There's always a chance, but I have yet to hear his name linked with the Jaguars with anyone that I've talked to. The search for a replacement for Jedd Fisch isn't going to be finished this weekend so I'm sure there will be more candidates emerging.
@ESPNdirocco: The most recent mock drafts around the Web seem to indicate that those two players will go with the first two picks, but the draft is a long way off. There's still the combine and team interviews and a lot can happen during that time. I think the most likely scenario for the Jaguars to get trade offers is if one of those players isn't taken with the first two picks. I believe GM David Caldwell would like to move down if he could, but it depends on the offer and how far back the move would be.
@ESPNdirocco pats just resigned SS Chung and another player to ext. does this mean that McCourty is on his way out? Jax a potential spot? $$— zach goodall (@zach_goodall) January 9, 2015
@ESPNdirocco: Patrick Chung's new contract isn't very big (at most $8.2 million) so I don't think that impacts the Patriots' decision on Devin McCourty. It'd be crazy for the Patriots to keep Chung over McCourty. The Patriots could put the franchise tag on him and there's still time to work out a contract extension. If he were available I believe the Jaguars would go pretty hard after him.
@ESPNdirocco: I think Caldwell would prefer it to work out the same way it did with Jason Babin: The Jaguars cut Lewis and he quickly agrees to sign a more team-friendly contract. However, it depends on whether Marcedes Lewis is willing to do that. The Jags could still keep him at his current salary, too, because they're so far under the cap in 2015 that they'd be able to absorb his cap figure of $8.3 million.
@ESPNdirocco: If I had to pick one, I'd say free safety because that's an integral piece to the defense and the Jaguars need an upgrade there. The Jaguars would benefit from a veteran or two at receiver and at tight end as well if Marcedes Lewis doesn't return.
@ESPNdirocco from a fan who didnt get to see Jags football regularly until recently, who was the better player; Henderson or Stroud?— Damian Moody-Smith (@DMoodySmith) January 9, 2015
@ESPNdirocco: Though I was in the Jacksonville area then, I was covering the University of Florida for the Florida Times-Union so I didn't pay close attention to the Jaguars. However, I know that Marcus Stroud was a three-time Pro Bowler and was voted All-Pro three times. Henderson made two Pro Bowls and was a second-team All-Pro once. Stroud had 29.5 quarterback sacks and Henderson had 29. Basically I'm saying they were both pretty darn good and they complemented each other well. It'd be hard to choose between them.
@ESPNdirocco: That's a possibility. Maybe Baltimore QB coach Rick Dennison, who was Gary Kubiak's offensive coordinator in Houston from 2010-13. The Texans used the zone-blocking scheme to which the Jaguars are committed.
@ESPNdirocco: Like I said in reference to Kyle Shanahan, there's always a chance but there have been reports that Marc Trestman may not be a priority candidate for the Jaguars.
@ESPNdirocco: I think it corresponds to their needs, which means offensive line and pass-rusher are the top two priorities. They'll also look at running backs and safeties pretty closely, too.
@ESPNdirocco: They absolutely will have interest in Cobb, who is one of the top young receivers in the game. However, it'd be a surprise if he were available. I expect Green Bay to work out an extension or use the franchise tag on him.
@ESPNdirocco: Caldwell said the Jaguars don't have to spend big this offseason but it would be a surprise to me if they weren't very aggressive. It's hard to say which players they'll target or have a chance to land because we don't know who will be available.
@ESPNdirocco: No. He's a very good player and durable, but the team would be better served spending the kind of money that it would take to sign Ndamukong Suh. I doubt he'll even be available. Detroit GM Martin Mayhew said this week the team is willing to use the franchise tag on Suh.
@ESPNdirocco: It's not a great class of safeties. Probably the best after McCourty is Cleveland's Tashaun Gipson, but he's a restricted free agent. I don't expect the Jaguars to target Rahim Moore because he doesn't fit the system as a centerfield safety.
@ESPNdirocco: Caldwell said he wants Alualu back and Alualu told me he wants to be back, so I'd say there's a very good chance he'll be here in 2015. He'll get moderate interest but it's not like he'll be fielding big-money offers.
@ESPNdirocco: Gus Bradley was going to be under pressure next season whether he kept Jedd Fisch or not, so the decision to fire him has no bearing or that. After winning just seven games in his first two seasons Bradley needs to win more in 2015.
“I could tell you about Andrew Luck; that sticks out,” Wayne said. “[Manning's] on the other team right now. I’ll holler at him later. Right now, it’s all about [No.] 12.”
Wayne did soften up a little bit about Manning. He was asked if it’s still weird seeing Manning in another team’s uniform. Manning is in his third season with the Broncos.
“Not no more. It’s probably more strange seeing all these Papa John’s commercials,” Wayne said. “I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve had so many friends come and go and play for other teams. As a professional football player, that’s part of the game. That happens, happens pretty frequently. You get used to it, man. When you sign your name on that line on that contract, at any point in time, anything can happen.
“Things can change. That was something nobody ever thought would happen, but it happened. You still suit up and play no matter what’s at stake. You go out there and you play. You’ve still got each other’s phone numbers. You can still text message, call and talk to him later.”
Wayne told a story about how he caught passes from Wayne during the 2012 offseason while the quarterback was working his way back from his neck injury. Manning reached out Wayne to return the favor last offseason as the receiver was working his way back from a torn ACL.
“I appreciate that, man,” Wayne said. “Peyton’s a good guy, man. He’s a good teammate. He’s a good person, even though he didn’t come throw to me, but it’s all good.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- For 16 seasons, defenses have wondered how Peyton Manning completed throws with the receiver blanketed by a defender.
"It's a matter of inches against him," Colts safety Mike Adams said of Manning, whose Denver Broncos will host Indianapolis in a divisional playoff game at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday. "Against the Broncos, you can't make mistakes. We have to play a perfect game."
Adams spent the 2012-13 seasons in Denver as Manning's teammate. "Being there, I noticed that every time a team made a mistake, he made them pay."
Adams saw Manning's intensity in practice, his dislike when the special-teams unit was on the field because it meant he wasn't taking snaps and working on his timing with his receivers, his anger on the sideline after he made a mistake, despite the defense telling him not to worry about it because they'd "get the ball back." That wasn't acceptable to Manning.
"He's that guy; he wants every snap," Adams said. "One thing I learned about the great Hall of Famers and players is that they all talk about loving to practice. He really does. It carries over."
It's up to the Colts to get Manning frustrated and angry if they expect to have any chance of advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2009 season, when Manning was their quarterback.
The goal of any defense facing Manning is disguising coverages.
"If you recognize something [as a defense], you can't yell it out," Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "You have to have some kind of nonverbal communication between the guys that need to know, because if he picks up on it, he's going to change it. He watches body language and listens to what is going on."
The slightest misstep -- showing blitz too soon or dropping too deep into coverage -- and Manning will recognize it. Think run, and Manning checks to a play-action pass. Think pass, and Manning hands the ball off to C.J. Anderson. Being close to perfect often isn't good enough against him.
"One time in practice, me and Champ Bailey was on one side and I had great coverage on Eric Decker. [Manning] saw me move forward and he threw the ball, perfect, right over my head," Adams said. "One bad step. Me and Champ looked at each other wondering how he made that throw. I remember that because right after that play, I asked why he threw that ball. He said, 'I saw you move forward and once you did that, I knew you couldn't recover.' "
And the Colts haven't recovered when facing pocket-passing quarterbacks this season. Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Tony Romo went a combined 99-of-135 for 1,266 yards, 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions against the Colts. And Indianapolis was 0-4 in those games.
The Colts finished with 42 sacks, the majority of them coming on blitzes because they didn't have pass-rush specialist Robert Mathis all season. It shouldn't be surprising the Colts only sacked Manning, Roethlisberger, Brady and Romo only twice, because good quarterbacks know how to beat blitzing teams.
Manning was sacked just 17 times this season, the fewest among full-time starters. Just think about the coyote chasing the roadrunner: You think you've got Manning, and he sidesteps the defender or gets rid of the ball right before getting hit.
"He knows exactly where he wants to go before the ball's hiked," Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding said. "[He's] looking at the safeties, finding that tail, seeing where you want to go with the ball, delivering the ball in a window where only his receivers can get it. His delivery, his movement in the pocket, his awareness -- all those things he's been very successful for all these years. He's still got it."
Manning's stats the second half of the season provide some hope for Indianapolis. He threw for 64 fewer yards per game, his completion percentage dropped 4 percent and he threw 19 fewer touchdown passes than the first nine games.
The Colts, however, aren't buying the notion that Manning, who will turn 39 in March, isn't as effective anymore.
"Peyton is still Peyton," Adams said. "Hearing rumors about him not being the same because he's not throwing for 300 yards or whatever -- Peyton is Peyton. They're winning games ... and that's all that matters."
A key, according to the Colts, is to try to force Manning outside the pocket. But many teams have tried and failed.
"You get to the point in the season where you're going to run into the elite-style quarterbacks the more you win," Jackson said. "So we're fully aware of it. We know the challenge ahead and they've also got to prepare for us as well."
Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz are expected to start at tackle with Jack Mewhort and Lance Louis at guard and Khaled Holmes at center. Castonzo is the only offensive linemen to start every game this season.
The last time the Colts started the same group on the offensive line in consecutive games was in Weeks 7 and 8 against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Hugh Thornton were both placed on injured reserve recently. Holmes is the third different starting center this season.
Injuries and inconsistent play have left the offensive line wobbly for the Colts because they’ve started 11 different groups up front this season. Still, that didn’t stop the group from helping Andrew Luck be sacked a career-low 27 times this season.
“It’s hard, but again we make no excuses,” coach Chuck Pagano said recently. “You’d like to go 16 weeks and have the same five guys start week-in and week-out, but that hasn’t been the case since we got here. We’ve dealt with it every single year. So it is what it is, and we’re fortunate that we’ve got a bunch of guys that have position flexibility, can play a lot of spots. We’ve got smart guys, we’ve got tough guys that can fill in and play winning football.”
They hope that’s the case after both were denied to be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014.
Dungy led the Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs in 11 of his 13 seasons coaching the two teams. The Colts won five division titles, reached the AFC Championship game twice and won Super Bowl XLI under Dungy.
Harrison had at least 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in eight straight seasons. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro selection. Harrison was second in league history in receptions when he retired in 2008. He ended his career with 1,102 receptions for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns.
Former Colts running back Edgerrin James wasn’t as fortunate as Harrison and Dungy because he didn’t make the cut as a finalist on Thursday. He’s the Colts’ all-time leading rusher with 9,226 yards and touchdowns with 64. James also played for Arizona and Seattle. He retired in 2009 with 12,246 yards, which is currently 11th on the all-time rushing list.
Now it's time to see if demoted running back Trent Richardson can handle playing on special teams.
Richardson participated in the Colts' special teams practice on Thursday.
"I'm here to do whatever I can to help the team," Richardson said at his locker after practice.
Playing special teams is yet another sign of the failed trade by the Colts to acquire Richardson from Cleveland in September 2013. He lost his starting job to Donald Brown late in the 2013 season. Then Richardson was the third running back -- playing just one snap -- behind Daniel "Boom" Herron and Zurlon Tipton against the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card win last weekend.
Coach Chuck Pagano didn't sound like Richardson would move ahead of Herron or Tipton on the depth chart for Sunday's game (4:40 p.m. ET) at Denver.
"We're going to evaluate the situation as we go through the week and we'll know more as we go through the week," Pagano said Wednesday.
Richardson has only rushed for 977 yards in 29 regular-season games with the Colts.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien hired Dunn to replace John Benton, who was the Texans' offensive line coach the prior year under former head coach Gary Kubiak. The Texans had tried for Mike Munchak, the former Titans head coach and Houston Oilers great, but Munchak opted to join the Pittsburgh Steelers' staff rather than return to the town where he played professional football.
They then turned to Dunn, who had been the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line coach in 2012 and 2013, having been promoted from assistant offensive line coach from 2008 to 2011.
The Texans' offensive line struggled this season, especially early, and Dunn's role shoulders some of the blame. They played better late in the year, including against the Baltimore Ravens when they did not give up a sack.
The Broncos were ranked as the third-best defense overall in the NFL this season. Only Detroit and Seattle had a better defensive unit than Denver this season.
Now it’s up to Luck and the rest of the offense to try to beat a defense that has talent on all three levels – the defensive line, linebacker and secondary.
“They do a heck of a job,” Luck said. “It shows up on film. You can tell they know what they do and they do it well. They do it fast. You see guys ripping at balls, getting hands on throws. Tough challenge, but I think one that we’re excited about and looking forward.”
Beat the blitz and it doesn’t mean Indianapolis is guaranteed success because Denver is loaded in the secondary with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. at cornerback and T.J. Ward and Rahim Moore at safety.
“Got a couple of enforcers at safety, got a ball hawk back there in Rahim Moore,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He does a great job, got great range, gets a jump on the ball, anticipates well, has great ball skills. T.J. Ward’s a guy that comes down, plays in the box, covers tight ends, blitzes, does a lot of things. Linebackers are athletic. They run the ball extremely well. They’re extremely well-coached. They’re disciplined. Front to back, they don’t give up very many big plays. You have to earn; they make you earn everything.”
The Colts failed to take advantage of early opportunities and found themselves in a 24-0 hole in the first half in their Week 1 matchup against Denver. They ended up with 408 yards of offense, but Luck threw two interceptions and was sacked three times.
Indianapolis is coming off its best offensive performance in more than a month. The Colts had 482 yards on offense and didn’t turn the ball over while mixing the pass with the run in their victory over Cincinnati.
“We have to do a better job in the red zone,” offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “We have to finish drives with touchdowns. We have to eliminate the friendly fire -- cannot count on being able to overcome the penalties or any situation. And of course we can’t turn the ball over. We have a lot of work to do.”
Two years ago they recognized the need to rebuild the position.
The moves they’ve made have collectively resulted in a failure.
It was a big theme throughout the 2014 season. It’s taken too long for them to jell. They were having chemistry and technique issues.
Team president and CEO Tommy Smith echoed the obvious thinking about the line’s underachievement during the season.
Pro Football Focus has ranked the NFL’s offensive lines, and the Titans landed at No. 28, ahead of only Miami, St. Louis, Buffalo and San Diego. The Titans were 29th in pass blocking ranking, 16th in run blocking ranking and 31st in penalties ranking.
Injuries ultimately killed the group, but the front-liners weren’t getting the job done before guys started to drop. Ken Whisenhunt says if the group had survived together, we would have seen progress by year’s end. We did see late-season improvement from right guard Chance Warmack.
But no one would have bet on better line play overall considering the struggles of left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Michael Oher.
Writes Khaled Elsayed in the PFF line ratings story:
They’ve spent big on Oher and Andy Levitre in recent years with little return. They’ve used their last two first-round picks on (Taylor) Lewan and Chance Warmack and while Lewan has impressed and Warmack does catch the eye at times, Warmack especially hasn’t reached the heights expected of him. The new Buccaneers in terms of paying a lot of attention to their offensive line, but getting it wrong a lot more than they’ve gotten it right.
I understand players, coaches and fans of the Buffalo Bills still holding strong to the idea that their team was robbed.
But we’ve seen plenty of research and examinations of what’s available to conclude the call on the field and the non-reversal on replay were correct.
Frank Wycheck was going forward, hard. Kevin Dyson was coming back to the ball, hard. The movement of the two players factors into perception of what the ball did. And all that matters is what the ball did.
With the technology we have these days, can someone with the editing tools and CGI capabilities take Wycheck and Dyson out of the picture? Erase them.
Show us the path of the ball with no people involved.
I bet a video like that could convert a lot of those who maintain it was a forward pass if they have a slightly open mind.
But the controversy is what gives the Music City Miracle a good part of its cache. CGI evidence or not, the play will always hold a spot in conversations about and lists of great endings, clever trick plays and debatable calls.
In the end, as Mike Keith so quickly told us, there are no flags on the field.
For many, well, for most everybody really, it will be difficult to get past the quarterbacks in this one. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will face his former team and the player the Indianapolis Colts selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Andrew Luck, just after the Colts released Manning in early 2012 -- all with a slot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
In some ways there is a bit of old-news flavor to this divisional-round game given it will actually be the third time Manning will face his former team after a meeting in Indianapolis in 2013 (a Colts win) and this year's regular-season opener in Denver (a Broncos win).
But this is the first postseason dance. The Broncos (12-4) are trying to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl and the Colts (12-5) are trying to keep the momentum they earned with Sunday's wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the quarterbacks as well as other issues in the playoff matchup.
Legwold: Mike, any concern there, even with Luck's heroics, the offense has become too one-dimensional? And how much could they adjust in a week?
Wells: The Colts are one-dimensional on offense. They didn't become one-dimensional on purpose. The goal was for them to have a balanced offense. That thought vanished when Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season in the middle of November because of a fractured fibula. Trent Richardson has been so much of a disappointment that he's now the No. 3 running back for the Colts. The Colts finished 22nd in the league in the rushing department during the regular season. The only hope the Colts have in the running department is with Daniel "Boom" Herron. He rushed 12 times for 56 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati on Sunday. Besides that, Luck's arm will have to carry the offense. The Colts are fine with that because he did lead the NFL in touchdown passes during the regular season and was third in passing yards.
Running back CJ Anderson only carried the ball four times in the Week 1 matchup with the Colts. He had back-to-back games of 167 and 168 yards rushing during the regular season. How much has he helped take the load off of Manning and the passing game?
Legwold: Since an inexplicable loss Nov. 16 in St. Louis, when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times, they have tried to balance things out the offense. They have run the ball at least 29 times in five of the last six games to close out the regular season. The exception was a 19-carry effort in the loss in Cincinnati. So, when they've pounded the ball down the stretch they've won games. They showed a little more of their pass-first chops in the regular-season finale against Oakland, but Anderson is the No. 1 option in the run game right now. Anderson's roster spot was a rather large question mark when he arrived to offseason workouts too heavy and looked sluggish, but he showed up to training camp far leaner. And when Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman were both injured Anderson got his chance. He has shown vision and power when he runs the ball as well as a good awareness in pass protection to go with his work as a receiver. They've only shown it in glimpses thus far, but if the Broncos can find a way to smooth out the rough spots as they transition from run to pass during games, the offense could certainly be built to work in the grind-it-out environment of the postseason.
Wes Welker didn't play in the season opener for the Broncos, Demaryius Thomas lined up in the slot because of that without a lot of success so it was tight end Julius Thomas who finished with three touchdown catches -- all in the second quarter. What do you think the Colts expect from the Broncos' offense this time around?
Wells: The Colts know Manning will be Manning. The difference for them is Anderson. The last thing the Colts can afford is for Anderson to get going early because it plays right into the hands of Manning with the play-action pass game. Manning is lethal even when he doesn't have a running game behind him. He's going to be almost impossible to stop if Anderson has the Colts on their heels in the running game. I asked former Broncos safety Mike Adams what's the biggest difference with Denver since their Week 1 matchup and the first player he mentioned was Anderson. The Colts have to find a way to put pressure on Manning when he drops back in the pocket. Good luck with that. Manning was only sacked 17 times during regular season. The Colts were 25th in the league in sacks.
The Broncos' defense sacked Luck three times and picked him off twice back in September. What is the key from Denver's defensive perspective in slowing down Luck and the offense?
Legwold: If there is one play in this past Sunday's game that showed the task at hand for the Broncos it was Luck's touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief with Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap wrapped around Luck's leg as he made the throw. The Broncos see Luck as a power runner in a pocket passer's body, a combination that is difficult to handle. It's not that they have to just get to Luck, but they have to get him down when they get there. Luck has shown himself to be particularly adept at escaping four-man rush packages that close in on him, especially if the two edge-rushers get too wide or rush too deep into the backfield in their efforts to get to him. The Broncos will try to keep him contained, allow a secondary with three Pro Bowl players to cover and force Luck to stay put, hold the ball and work through his progressions. Down and distance will also be important. If the Broncos don't allow the Colts much production on first down, they'll get the option of using some of their specialty packages, with five, six or seven defensive backs. Opposing quarterbacks have had some trouble moving the ball against those looks.
In the end, we all know about the quarterbacks, we all will be watching them perform Sunday, but if you had to name one or two other players who have to have an elite player type of day for the Colts to win, who would it be?
Wells: Linebacker Jerrell Freeman. As you recall, Jeff, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas dominated the Colts on that Sunday night in early September. Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts tried a number of different players on Thomas, even safety LaRon Landry. None of those players could slow him down. You can expect Freeman to spend a lot of time defending Thomas. Freeman is coming off his best game of the season when he had a season-high 15 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He's the only Colts linebacker athletic enough to defend Thomas.
Still, it wouldn't be right if we previewed this game and I didn't ask a Manning question because of the obvious connection with the Indianapolis. Manning said earlier this season that he'll be back as long as the Broncos will have him. You've been around him for the past three seasons, how many years do you think he has in that arm?
Legwold: Most folks look at Manning's right arm when they discuss his future, how he throws, the velocity on the ball, his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field. But in terms of how many seasons he will play beyond this one, I believe in many ways he will make the call on when to call it a career, by how his legs are doing. He often talks about the “ability to move around and protect yourself,'' as being an important part of how he feels. And it is worth noting -- and I see him in practice every day -- he still throws the ball much the same as when he arrived in Denver in 2012 and that all of his injuries, at least the ones serious enough to show up on the injury reports, have been leg injuries. Last year he injured, and re-injured, both ankles and played with pain down the stretch. And this year he suffered a right thigh injury in a December win over the San Diego Chargers that affected his ability to plant and throw down the stretch. In the end, Manning has already said he plans to come back next season. His contract runs through 2016 and there are some in the Broncos organization who could see him finishing out the deal, but it will depend on Manning's health overall, including his ability to move in the pocket, to slide and to keep himself out of harm's way.