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.