AFC South: Andrew Luck

Colts vs. Giants preview

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
8:00
AM ET

The Indianapolis Colts had won five games in a row before last week's 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh. The New York Giants had won three in a row before losing in Philadelphia and Dallas prior to last week's bye. These two teams are looking to remind everyone of better times as they meet at MetLife Stadium on "Monday Night Football."

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano are here with your game preview:

Wells: Dan, the Cowboys went from Super Bowl contenders to having to worry about Tony Romo's back, and the Eagles are coming off a loss. Do you feel like the Giants have a realistic shot at winning the NFC East?

Graziano: It's not impossible, but I don't think it's realistic. They trail Dallas by 2½ games and Philadelphia by two, and they lost to each of those teams before the bye. The idea that they could catch both is far-fetched, especially since they can't go 2-0 against either.

Fundamentally, I just don't think the Giants are very good. Eli Manning is playing well in the new offense, but the group around him is made up of young guys and backups. Injuries to Victor Cruz (out for the year) and Rashad Jennings (who will miss a third straight game) have sapped the offense of much of its explosiveness, and guys such as Odell Beckham, Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell and Andre Williams have shown promise but are still developing. The offensive line, also quite young in spots, has been inconsistent. On the defensive side, they're extremely banged up at cornerback and they just lost middle linebacker Jon Beason for the season.

The Giants are a team with a clear vision for the future and they've already shown progress in the new offense, but they're going to be outmanned most weeks.

How about the Colts? The group around Andrew Luck seems to have come together better than I expected it would. What are the main reasons (other than himself) that Luck is leading the league in passing yards?

Wells: The main reason is that Luck's ability to spread the ball around makes it difficult for defenses to key on one area. He had back-to-back games earlier this season where he completed passes to nine different receivers. Another reason: Two key players -- receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen -- are back after having their 2013 seasons cut short. Wayne is second on the team with 434 receiving yards -- trailing only T.Y. Hilton -- despite missing the Pittsburgh game. Allen is tied with former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with six.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton took a lot of criticism last season for being determined to make Indianapolis a power-running team despite having Luck at quarterback. Hamilton is more comfortable in Year 2 as an NFL coordinator and it's showing, as the Colts run the ball just enough to keep defenses honest.

Manning is 22nd in the league in passing yards. Would it be safe to say he's on the decline of his career, or does he have enough left in the tank to win his third Super Bowl ring at some point?

Graziano: I don't think he's declining. They just totally changed the offensive system. Longtime coordinator Kevin Gilbride "retired" (cough, was forced out, cough) and was replaced by Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant who brought Mike McCarthy's West Coast offense with him. The emphasis for Manning has been on avoiding turnovers after leading the league with 27 interceptions last year, and as a result the Giants are leaning hard on the run and the short-passing game. A whopping 67 percent of Manning's throws have traveled fewer than 10 yards down the field, compared with 61 and 62 percent the two seasons prior.

It's possible the offense develops more of a downfield element as everyone continues to develop -- especially first-round rookie Beckham, who has field-stretching speed but has only played three games. GM Jerry Reese said Monday that he'd like to see the offense be more aggressive, but coach Tom Coughlin has insisted that they're not looking to take more chances downfield and prefer to play it close to the vest so as to avoid a recurrence of last year's turnover problems.

Long term, I think Manning has enough time to win another Super Bowl if this new group develops around him. I imagine he'll get his contract extension this offseason, and the way the league is set up for quarterbacks right now, it's not crazy to think he has five or six good years left.

When we talked to Eli on Monday, he said he'd watched the Colts' past two games and noted the significant difference in the number of points they surrendered in them. His take was that the defensive scheme wasn't different but that Pittsburgh did a great job against it, while Cincinnati obviously did not. What on earth went wrong Sunday, and which Colts defense is the one we should expect to see Monday?

Wells: I'm not even sure the Colts know what went wrong against the Steelers. There wasn't a defense in the league that probably could have stopped Ben Roethlisberger. Defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois summed it up best when he said they got a wake-up call and Roethlisberger was a step ahead of them the entire game. He found the soft spots of the defense when they played zone and torched them when they blitzed. He also laid out the blueprint on how to beat a Colts defense that had 20 sacks and nine turnovers in the five games leading up to that matchup. Indy's front seven couldn't get any pressure on Roethlisberger; it was the first time since Week 2 that the Colts didn't have a sack.

Luck has thrown for at least 300 yards in six straight games. The Giants are 25th in the league against the pass. How do they expect to slow Luck down?

Graziano: Their best bet is that the offense clicks and they put together long, sustained drives that keep Luck off the field for long stretches. Their pass defense is in tatters. Top cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been trying to play through leg and back injuries, and he doesn't seem to have improved much over the bye. They lost nickelback Walter Thurmond (arm) and backup nickel Trumaine McBride (thumb) to a season-ending injuries.

To overcome those losses, they've been putting Prince Amukamara on the opposing team's top receiver and experimenting with a three-safety look that includes Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps and Stevie Brown, who was demoted earlier in the year due to ineffectiveness. It would help if they could generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but in spite of a solid performance against the run, Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of the defensive line have not been getting sacks. (As a team, the Giants have only 13 in seven games.) Luck has a chance for a big night.

If Luck does have a big night, however, it doesn't seem as though former Giant Hakeem Nicks will be a part of it. Has he been as much of a non-factor there as he was here last year, and if so, why do the Colts think that is?

Wells: The Colts are saying the right things publicly, but it's been a mystery why Nicks hasn't been a factor. Last weekend's game basically summed up his time with the Colts. With Wayne out with an elbow injury, Nicks was the No. 2 receiver, but he was clearly outplayed by rookie Donte Moncrief. Nicks only caught one of the six targets from Luck for 27 yards while playing 60 of 66 snaps. Moncrief only needed 40 snaps to catch seven passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. You would have thought having a bigger role in the offense would help Nicks. Now you have to wonder if he'll fit in at all this season because Wayne will likely play Monday and Moncrief's performance may have been good enough to move him ahead of Nicks as the third receiver.

Graziano: Thanks, Mike. Travel safe and I'll see you Monday.

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:00
AM ET

The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible?

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes.

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity?

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated?

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice.

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively?

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point. Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebacker James Harrison out of retirement.

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game?

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants.

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary?

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge.

Broncos vs. Colts preview

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:00
PM ET

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.
Examining the Indianapolis Colts' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
This is the safest position on the roster for the Colts. They plan to always keep a veteran backup if Luck ever goes down with an injury.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

The Colts will have a solid running combination if -- and we’re saying if until proven wrong -- Richardson can bounce back from a poor first season in Indianapolis and Bradshaw and Ballard can stay injury-free. Havili, a fullback, gets the edge over Mario Harvey, who switched from linebacker to fullback during offseason workouts.

RECEIVERS (5)

The final receiver spot will come down to Rogers and Griff Whalen. If the Colts want to play it safe, Whalen is the guy because he’s familiar with Luck and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but Rogers has the size and speed the team likes. There’s also the possibility of the Colts keeping six receivers.

TIGHT ENDS (4)

Allen, who missed all but one game in 2013, and Fleener have the potential to be one of the top tight end duos in the league. Doyle and Saunders are both familiar with the system after backing up Fleener in Allen’s absence last season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

There are plenty of questions surrounding the offensive line outside of tackles Castonzo and Cherilus. The one thing general manager Ryan Grigson wanted with this group is depth. The Colts have plenty of it.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)

Like the offensive line, the Colts want depth on the defensive line so they can constantly rotate in players, so come the fourth quarter they still have fresh legs to get after the opponent. Jones was the key offseason acquisition for the Colts. Chapman showed flashes last season; now he needs to do it every snap that he’s on the field.

LINEBACKERS (10)

All eyes will be on outside linebacker as the Colts look to find a replacement for Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games of the season. Werner gets the first crack at starting in Mathis’ spot. McNary is a player for whom Grigson has high expectations. It’ll be up to defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on how he uses McNary.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)

It’s anybody’s guess how the secondary will perform. It’s anybody’s guess who will start alongside Landry at safety. It looked like it would be Howell for most of the offseason, but the Colts signed the veteran Adams in June. Can Toler finally remain healthy? Can Davis live up to his contract? So many questions with no answers at the moment.

SPECIALIST

This only changes if an injury occurs.

Camp preview: Indianapolis Colts

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation’s Mike Wells examines the three biggest issues facing the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp.

Khaled Holmes: Colts general manager Ryan Grigson took a big gamble in the offseason by not heavily pursuing a veteran center. He signed Phil Costa, who was beaten out by a rookie in Dallas, only to have the veteran suddenly retire before ever playing a snap for the Colts. Even with Costa on the roster, the plan all along for the Colts was for Holmes to start. This is the same Khaled Holmes who managed to play a total of 12 snaps as a rookie, despite poor play by Samson Satele at the position last season. Grigson has constantly defended Holmes ever since, pointing out that the second-year player would be his starter. The goal is for Holmes to team with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck for years to come. Holmes needs to have good chemistry with Luck and control the line of the scrimmage, all while making sure the rest of the offensive linemen know the correct calls. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a player who is basically a rookie, especially when you think about the expectations the Colts have this season.

Safety: Similar to his decision at center, Grigson didn’t look far outside the organization to address a position of need. Veteran Antoine Bethea left Indianapolis to sign with San Francisco, and it appeared Delano Howell was the frontrunner to start alongside LaRon Landry at safety. Things seem to change in the middle of June, when the Colts signed veteran Mike Adams. Adams has started 73 games in his 10-year NFL career, but even though he says he feels like he’s 26 years old, he’s actually 33. Howell has started only four games in his career. And speaking of Landry, he didn’t exactly ease anybody’s mind about whether he’ll be able to rebound from a disappointing first season with the Colts. He didn’t attend any of the voluntary offseason workouts, then showed up at the mandatory minicamp with what was described as a soft-tissue injury. While the offseason workouts are voluntary, it would have helped Landry if he had at least attended a few of the sessions. Grigson and Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn’t criticize Landry for not showing up, but they did point out their preference of wishing he was in attendance. If anything it would have showed that Landry cared about working on chemistry with the rest of his defensive teammates. There are too many questions surrounding the safety position on a defense that was way too inconsistent last season.

Trent Richardson: The excuses are no longer available for Richardson in the Colts organization. The ready-made line of, “Richardson is still learning the offensive system,” is in the trash on the curb. Richardson, who the Colts acquired from Cleveland just days before Week 3 last season, has had an entire offseason to learn the playbook. Now he can use his natural instincts when he’s on the field, instead of constantly trying to remember the plays. The Colts clearly are trailing the Browns in the who-got-the-better-of-the-trade race. Cleveland turned the No. 26 pick into hotshot quarterback Johnny Manziel after using it to trade up to No. 22. The Colts? All Richardson gave them was 2.9 yards a carry and a demotion to the second unit last season. Richardson and the Colts have to hope this season is different. The pressure is on Richardson, because Grigson said earlier this year he would make the trade again if put in the same position. Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, had offseason shoulder surgery and will head into training camp as the starter, with Ahmad Bradshaw ready to take some snaps from him if he struggles.

Colts' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
Quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’ll remain in an Indianapolis Colts uniform for the foreseeable future.

Luck
 Owner Jim Irsay will make sure of that.

The Colts look at Luck in the same way they looked at Peyton Manning (minus having to part ways with him at some point). They want to keep Luck under center and have him lead the Colts to the Super Bowl multiple times.

If the first two years are in any indication, the Colts are in a good position to accomplish those things with Luck. The only real question -- one that has been burning since Luck’s rookie year -- is whether he will be as durable as Manning because of poor offensive line play?

Luck has been sacked so many times (73) during the first two years of his career that you’re left wondering at times how he has yet to miss any snaps in a game because of an injury. He has shaken off countless hits to lead the Colts to 22 regular-season victories and three playoff games in just two seasons.

 Still, the Colts are flirting with danger when it comes to their franchise player because of poor pass protection.

The Colts are set at tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus on the left and right side, respectively.

The interior part of the line has remained poor, however.

Luck has a new center in Khaled Holmes, who played only 12 snaps last season. Hugh Thornton is the frontrunner to retain one of the guard spots, while the other guard position is uncertain. Rookie Jack Mewhort could end up starting at guard. If so, Luck and the interior part of the offensive line will grow together. Luck, in just his third season, is the elder statesmen of the group. Holmes and Thornton are both in their second season, and Mewhort has yet to play an NFL snap.
Peyton ManningAP Photo/Michael Conroy
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 This is the last of three nominations for the most memorable plays in Indianapolis Colts history dating to when they moved to Indianapolis in 1984. The first nomination was second-year quarterback Andrew Luck leading the Colts from 28 points down in the second half to beat Kansas City in the AFC playoffs last season. The second was cornerback Marlin Jackson's interception of New England quarterback Tom Brady with 18 seconds left to seal the Colts' 18-point comeback in the AFC Championship Game in January 2007.

Score: Colts 34, Chargers 31
Date: Dec. 26, 2004. Site: RCA Dome

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It didn't seem like Peyton Manning would break Dan Marino's season touchdown passing record on this day. For 59 minutes you thought Manning would have to wait until the season finale against the Denver Broncos to pass the record.

Manning was untouchable by defenders all season leading up to the Week 16 game against San Diego.

But the Chargers sacked him four times, forced two fumbles and intercepted him once.

With the game on the line, though, Manning did what he does best: Be clutch.

Manning shook off the play call that came in through his headset and decided to make a backyard play call to receiver Brandon Stokley.

Manning told Stokley to run a post route.

Lined up in the slot, Stokley threw the defense off balance by faking a fade to the corner and cutting back inside on the post to catch the 21-yard touchdown pass from Manning. Chargers safety Terrence Kiel was faked out so badly by Stokley looking as though he was going to run the corner route that he fell in the end zone.

"You think the NFL is real complex," Manning told reporters after the game. "But it turns into street ball real quick."

The touchdown pass was the 49th of the season thrown by Manning, breaking the record set by Marino in 1984.

"It says a lot about Peyton that here we are, the game on the line, and he calls a play we've never run before," Stokley told reporters. "He calls a post. I just didn't want it to hit me in the face."

Manning spent the weeks leading up to that game talking about how playoff seeding was more important than passing Marino's record. The Colts beat the Chargers in overtime.

"At the time I threw it, there wasn't a lot of emotion for me, because if we don't get the 2-point conversion, this is a down locker room right now," Manning said after the game. "The fact that it happened, we won the game ... . It sure made for an exciting day."

 
T.Y. HiltonBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable plays in Colts' history dating back to when they moved to Indianapolis from Baltimore in 1984. In the next two days we'll feature: Peyton Manning's 21-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley for Manning's 49th TD of the season, which broke Dan Marino's single-season TD record in 2004, and cornerback Marlin Jackson's interception of New England quarterback Tom Brady to seal the Colts' 18-point comeback in the AFC Championship Game in January 2007.

Score: Colts 45, Chiefs 44
Date: January 4, 2014 Site: Lucas Oil Stadium

Indianapolis Colts second-year quarterback Andrew Luck was playing in his first home playoff game, against a team he had beaten two weeks earlier.

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But the Colts didn't know what hit them.

Seven-point deficit. Ten-point deficit. Seventeen-point deficit. Twenty-one point deficit. The deficit grew as large as 28 points, and many of the Colts fans at sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium sat stone-faced, not believing what they were watching on the field.

Luck wasn't helping the situation. He looked like a rookie quarterback taking his first snaps. His third interception of the game gave the Chiefs a short field to work with, which they used to increase their lead to 38-10 just 81 seconds into the second half.

“[Luck] kept telling us, even at 38-10, 'We're going to win this game,'" offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo said.

Luck wasn't worried about the double-digit deficit. He proved six prior times in his young career that he could lead the Colts back from a double-digit deficit.

Luck -- pun intended -- was on the Colts' side. Trailing 41-31 early in the fourth quarter, Colts running back Donald Brown fumbled a handoff and the ball bounced off of center Samson Satele's helmet. But Luck picked up the ball and ran in from 5 yards out to cut Kansas City's lead to 41-38.

Indianapolis completed the improbable comeback when Luck stepped up in the pocket and found receiver T.Y. Hilton streaking downfield for a 64-yard touchdown with less than five minutes left in the game.

The 28-point comeback was the second-largest in NFL playoff history. Long snapper Matt Overton called it an, “Instant ESPN Classic,” after the game.

“[Luck's] not giving you a bunch of bulls--- when he says that stuff,” Castonzo said. “At no point does he not believe we're not going to win. He's led us on a lot of comebacks for a reason. The guy does not freak out.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is headed into his third season. He has played in three playoff games -- winning one -- and has had two offensive coordinators in his first two seasons.

Luck
Luck also has 22 regular-season victories, an arm, mobility and the will the win. That is why ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, with the help of anonymous league insiders Insider, views the Colts’ franchise player as a top-five quarterback in the league.

Luck is ranked higher than fellow quarterbacks like Manning. No, not that Manning, but Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.

The quarterbacks are broken up into four tiers. Luck is in Tier 1 with all future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He joins Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in that top tier. Impressive company for a third-year player.

Here is what Sando wrote about Luck:

"Luck doesn't have the track record of the other Tier 1 QBs, and there was a clear gap in the voting between him and the top four. But people in the league love him almost unconditionally, and 14 of the 26 voters insisted upon putting him in the top tier (each of the top four received 25 of 26 Tier 1 votes).

The evaluators think Luck has carried a subpar roster to a 22-10 record without much help. They see no limitations. They have zero doubt about his long-term stardom and felt strongly enough to give him 14 first-tier votes even while acknowledging he is below the Big Four at this early stage. Every other QB fell into the tier in which he received the most votes, and so shall Luck, even if his Tier 1 designation feels a bit premature."

The Colts' offensive line was atrocious Luck’s rookie season and only a little better last season. Luck didn’t have a reliable receiver to turn to outside of T.Y. Hilton after Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL in Week 7 last season. The running game? That was a problem, too.

Projecting Colts starters

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
3:30
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A lot can happen for the Indianapolis Colts between now and Week 1 against the Denver Broncos. Injured players become completely healthy. Healthy players get injured. Projected starters get beat out by a teammate.

But that hasn't stopped fans from asking about what the Colts' depth chart will look like this season. It's July and players, coaches and front office officials are taking one last vacation before reporting for the start of training camp in Anderson, Indiana, on July 23. So for the next two days I'll take a shot at who I think the starters will be.

We'll start with the offense today. We'll do the defense on Tuesday.

Quarterback: Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck

Comment: This is self-explanatory. Go ahead and keep Luck's name there as long as he's healthy.

Running back: Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard, Stanley Havili

Comment: As I mentioned last week when I did position battles, Richardson will be given the first shot at starting because of his talent and the last thing the Colts want to show is that their trade for him last September was a failure.

Receiver: Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks

Comments: The pressure isn't on Wayne to be the Reggie Wayne of a few years ago because he has help with Hilton and Nicks at the position, but Wayne is out to prove that he can still produce at the age 35 and after tearing his ACL.

Tight end: Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen

Comment: Allen is a better all-around tight end than Fleener, but he missed all but one game last season because of a hip injury.

Offensive line: (LT) Anthony Castonzo, (LG) Jack Mewhort, (C) Khaled Holmes, (RG) Hugh Thornton, (RT) Gosder Cherilus

Comment: The only position really up in the air at the moment is left guard. Mewhort currently has the edge because Donald Thomas didn't take part in offseason workouts and he moved ahead of Lance Louis during organized team activities (OTAs).
Here's Part I of the Colts Mailbag. Part II will run Sunday Mike Wells: Delano Howell appeared to be the frontrunner -- and he still may be -- the entire offseason until the Colts signed Adams to take Corey Lynch's spot on the roster. The Colts could have easily gone out and signed a young player, but they didn't. They signed a proven veteran, one who was on the roster of a team -- Denver -- that played in the Super Bowl last season. Howell lacks starting experience. The Colts aren't handing the starting spot to Mike Adams, but don't be surprised if he ends up starting alongside LaRon Landry at safety. Wells: Second-round pick Jack Mewhort. The offensive lineman is capable of playing all five positions on the line. A positive for Mewhort is that he moved ahead of Lance Louis and was working with the first unit by the end of offseason workouts. The competition for that starting spot will intensify in training camp once Donald Thomas starts practicing. It'll be Louis and Thomas as the two primary players pushing Mewhort for that starting spot. Wells: The Colts have about $13.7 million in salary cap space left. Colts GM Ryan Grigson said a number of times earlier in the offseason that they didn't plan to use all their salary-cap space because they'll have to pay players like Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton at some point down road. Wells: That's strictly up to Daniel Adongo. Practice well and play well in the preseason and he'll have a chance to get on the field in a game. The opportunity will definitely be there early in the season when linebacker Robert Mathis is serving his four-game suspension. Playing time at Mathis' position is far from set. It's up to Adongo to prove he deserves to get snaps. Wells: It's way, way too early to tell if Ahmad Bradshaw can stay healthy. Teams don't wear pads during offseason workouts, and even then, Bradshaw joined the quarterbacks and fellow running back Trent Richardson by wearing a red non-contact jersey. Bradshaw's health was the only thing that stopped him from being the Colts' starting running back last season. Bradshaw and Richardson were the only two running backs of three expected to push for the starting spot to take part in offseason workouts. Vick Ballard, the third, is still working his way back from a torn ACL.
INDIANAPOLIS -- There were some players missing on the practice field during the final day of the Indianapolis Colts' mandatory three-day minicamp.

Quarterback Andrew Luck wasn't taking snaps. Receiver T.Y. Hilton wasn't catching passes. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw was walking around the facility in street clothes.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano rewarded the veteran players by allowing them to miss the final day of minicamp.

That means the Colts' rookie class got plenty of snaps and quarterback Chandler Harnish, who has spent his first two seasons on the practice squad, was the one throwing the ball around the field.

"Met with the guys and just felt like as a staff we've had such great participation, great work, made great strides," Pagano said. "Everybody got better. We got better on all three phases. Felt like we wanted to get the young guys some work so we let the vets go and kept first and second-year guys and give them another opportunity to get the work that they need and to come out here to get better."

Pagano, like most coaches do, ended the final minicamp practice early when kicker Cody Parkey nailed a field goal and was immediately mobbed by his teammates.

The Colts won't be back together as a team until they report for training camp at Anderson University (Ind.) on July 23.

"Pleased with the offseason program, pleased with the minicamp and the direction we're headed and the guys are excited to get away," Pagano said. "We talked about being smart, doing the right thing, making great choices and staying in the playbook, working at their craft day-in and day-out. So with that, we're happy where we're at."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Reggie Wayne has watched the play at least 10 times. He starts in motion, comes across the middle of the field wide open. Haul in the pass and he’ll be celebrating in the end zone seconds later as the Indianapolis Colts would have extended their lead over the Denver Broncos to 13 points last October.

But the pass from quarterback Andrew Luck was underthrown. Wayne, like he’s done countless times during what will end up being a Hall of Fame career, attempts to make an impressive catch. His foot, according to Wayne, got caught in the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, causing him to tear the ACL in his right knee.

While others may cringe looking at such a bad injury, Wayne has looked at it with a straight face, the same type of seriousness he’s taken over the past eight months while working his way back from the knee injury.

[+] EnlargeReggie Wayne
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesColts WR Reggie Wayne is looking forward to proving all of his doubters wrong.
“I wanted to see it because I’m going to do that same thing a million more times,” Wayne said. “It’s something I want to see and I’m going to keep watching it until I’m back out there.”

Wayne’s road to recovery from what he revealed for the first time Thursday as his third ACL tear has been more challenging than the other two.

He’s not the same 20-year-old kid at the University of Miami whose body allowed him to recover more quickly. Wayne’s 35 years old and his NFL career is winding down. His body has gotten to the point where it reacts to the weather. Colder days make it tougher on him than when he has beads of sweat running down the side of his face from the sweltering heat.

“Back in ‘98, I was a young buck,” Wayne said. “I knew I had some time. Now I’m 35, I don’t have any more redshirt eligibility left, so it’s been different. At the same time, it’s been humbling. But for some strange reason, I’m a little hungrier now than I was then.”

Wayne felt like he left his teammates hanging because he wasn’t out there with them for the final 11 games of the season. But as time went by, he had a premonition, one that kind of leaves you scratching your head because an ACL injury isn’t easy to overcome. He believes the injury helped the rest of his body.

“This is probably the healthiest I’ve been since '02,” Wayne said. “One blessing I do take out of last year is that maybe it was time to let my body heal. I took pride in being out there in every game. I tried my best to not leave any T’s uncrossed. Maybe it was time for me to sit back a little bit and get my body back together and I’ve done that.”

Wayne had no problem admitting that the media and doubters fueled him as he rehabbed his knee before anybody showed up at the team’s facility in the morning and long after they left in the evening.

Is Wayne done? Can Wayne regain his form? Will Wayne hurt the Colts more than help them?

Those are questions going through many people's heads but they won’t be answered until Wayne officially returns to the field. He meets with Dr. John Uribe in Miami on a regular basis. His most recent visit didn’t involve any fluid in his knee and that’s why Wayne believes he’s on his way.

Wayne’s been running routes at the team’s facility, but that’s obviously different than doing it with pads on, with a defensive back jamming him at the line of scrimmage or running an out pattern with a cornerback draped on his back.

“I feel like I have nothing to prove to anybody,” Wayne said. “I know what I can do. Guys in this locker room know what I can do. Now it’s time to show the first-timers who have not seen me play, the ones that keep calling me Mr. Wayne, ones that say they played with me on 'Madden.' There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be ready [for training camp] in July.”

Wayne is headed into the final year of his contract. He doesn’t know how many more years he plans to play, instead preferring to use the phrase “day to day.” Just know, Wayne plans to make 2014 a memorable season because the clock is counting down on him. Luck recently referred to Wayne as a "freak" because of the things he's been able to do.

“I know what my age is, I know when something is against me,” he said. “I’m geeked about being able to show everybody what I can do at 35.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- The final significant days of the offseason for the Indianapolis Colts (outside of when commissioner Roger Goodell disciplines owner Jim Irsay) starts Tuesday at the team's facility when they begin the first of three days of mandatory minicamp before breaking up for the final time prior to reporting for training camp July 23.

Let's take a look at several things to pay attention to during the camp:

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe competition at running back, including Trent Richardson, won't be decided in this week's mandatory minicamp.
Offensive line battle: You can go ahead and put Khaled Holmes down as the starting center, but with Donald Thomas (quad, bicep) still working his way back, the starting guard positions could end up taking some time. Hugh Thornton, who took Thomas's spot after he was injured last season, has been working with the first team at right guard during organized team activities. Lance Louis had been working with the first team at left guard, but rookie Jack Mewhort, the Colts' second-round pick, moved ahead of him last week. The competition will intensify during training camp.

Running back competition: Just like the battle for the starting guard position, we won't get full competition for the starting running back position because Vick Ballard (knee) isn't expected to take part, as he's still working his way back from ACL surgery. Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw, the other two primary candidates, both wore red non-contact jerseys during OTAs. So this is another competition that won't pick up until training camp. All three players will get playing time, but keep in mind that coach Chuck Pagano said earlier in the offseason they want a workhorse in the backfield.

Landry sighting: Safety LaRon Landry has been the most significant healthy player missing during OTAs. It's not required for players to attend OTAs and Landry prefers to work out on his own during the offseason. But it still would have been good if he would have popped in for some of the workouts because of the need for improvement for the defense, the transition from a seasoned veteran in Antoine Bethea to possibly Delano Howell, who lacks significant experience, and Landry simply didn't have a great first season with the Colts. The offense, as long as Andrew Luck is the quarterback, will be fine. He's shown he can be effective even without good blocking. The same can't be said about a defense that finished 20th in the league last season.

The Bjoern factor: The fact linebacker Robert Mathis (suspension) won't be with the Colts the first four games of the season has definitely sunk in. Now it's up to second-year player Bjoern Werner, who gets the first shot to start in Mathis's absence, to prove he was worth the Colts selecting him in the first round after an inconsistent rookie season. "This year it's just knowing the defense and to feel comfortable in the defense," Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "Now it's just his ability to get to the passer, which it's kind of you want him to do that in these OTAs, but he's never really going to get there because you don't have the pads on. But he's been doing a great job at least from the calls and signals and getting everything lined up and knowing exactly what he's supposed to do. It's a great situation for him."

Can Adams help: The Colts signed veteran safety Mike Adams over the weekend to take Corey Lynch's spot on the roster after placing him on injured reserve. Howell is leading the race to start, but Adams has started 73 games in his career. The question about Adams is: Does he have enough left in his 33-year-old body to help the Colts and possibly supplant Howell as the starting safety alongside Landry?

Who won't be there: Barring a sudden change of events, here are the players -- not including those on injured reserve -- you won't see taking part in minicamp. Receiver Reggie Wayne (knee), Ballard (knee) and Thomas (quad, bicep).
INDIANAPOLIS -- The video has been watched. It's been watched numerous of times, actually. Quarterback Andrew Luck has watched the film of the Indianapolis Colts' playoff loss to the New England Patriots too many times to count.

Nothing changed. The Patriots won the game 43-22 every time and Luck still threw four interceptions.

"It is good motivation because they obviously beat us and were the better team," Luck said. "But there are also mistakes that eat you up, but you sometimes have to take the emotion out of it. We look at this with a cold, hard analytical mindset and say this is the learning experience. Take the emotion out of it. You look at the mistakes and say, why. We watch every play from last season multiple times and we review regular third down and red zone and everything."

New England has been a nemesis of Luck during his first two seasons. He's 0-2 and has thrown seven interceptions against the Patriots.

Luck will get another shot to beat the Patriots when New England visits Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 16. He'll be facing one of the top cornerback duos in the league in that game in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

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