NFL Nation: 2013 Week 7 DEN at IND

Owner Jim Irsay earned this game ball

October, 21, 2013
Indianapolis Colts Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Luck and the Colts spoiled Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was only fitting that the owner, you know the one whose comments were supposed to motivate Peyton Manning to put up astronomical numbers in his return trip to Indianapolis, walked out of the Indianapolis Colts' locker room holding a football shortly after his team beat the Denver Broncos 39-33 on Sunday.

This wasn't just any football Jim Irsay had a firm grip of.

It was the game ball.

Irsay earned the right to take the ball home -- and stick his nose up at the critics -- after being the center of attention during what was supposed to be a special week for the Colts and Manning.

Irsay was heavily criticized about comments he says were taken out of context when talking about how he believes the team should be built -- a balanced offense, defense and special teams -- now that Manning calls Denver home.

You know what?

It was the balanced team that beat Manning's "Star Wars" numbers in front of a sold out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd.

That's why coach Chuck Pagano gave his owner an emotional postgame speech inside the locker room.

These Colts (5-2) aren't the flashiest team, but they find a way to get it done. Game balls could have been given out to the entire offense, defense and special teams.

"We all knew what we were up against and the players were just hanging tough," Pagano said. "This is the grittiest football team that I've ever been around my entire life."

The Colts spent the week leading up to the game not listening to people say they weren't good enough to hang with the high-scoring Broncos. Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne referred to last week as a circus because of the attention the game got.

"We were willing to work and prove everybody wrong," Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "I knew everybody in the media world was banking on Peyton Manning coming in here and putting on a show. I tip my hat to him, he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But this team -- all three aspects of it -- was excellent. We fought for 60 minutes. We knew it wasn't a game that would be won in a half."

The list of Super Bowl contenders the Colts have beaten this season has now grown to three teams in just seven games. San Francisco and Seattle are the other two teams the Colts have knocked off.

Pagano has excelled at not getting caught up in the moment of who they're playing, even if this time it was the player responsible for leading the Colts to a Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season.

"It's a long season and you can't afford to do that," Pagano said late last week. "You get yourself in trouble when that happens."

Like all good teams do, the players follow their coach's lead. Quarterback Andrew Luck did his part by throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns. But the game changed when the defense stepped up.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis coach Chuck Pagano
Andy Lyons/Getty Images"This is the grittiest football team that I've ever been around my entire life," Chuck Pagano said.
Until Sunday night, Robert Mathis hadn't been able to come close to Manning. He remembered being chewed out for coming too close to him in a practice a decade ago when the two were teammates.

Mathis blew by Broncos left tackle Chris Clark and sacked Manning, causing him to fumble. The Colts earned a safety after linebacker Erik Walden couldn't gather the ball before going out of bounds.

The Colts forced the Broncos into five straight punts after the safety. Manning threw for 386 yards, but the Colts sacked him four times, intercepted a pass and forced Denver into three turnovers total.

"We heard how we couldn't stop people before,” Colts defensive back Darrius Butler said. "We heard the same thing going into San Francisco week and Seattle week. As long as guys in this locker believe in each other, we can accomplish anything. We stuck to our keys and did our thing. Guys had to win their matchups and that's what happened for the most part.”

Colts punter Pat McAfee used his 6-foot-1, 233-pound frame to deliver a hard hit -- and possible fine -- on Trindon Holliday along Denver's sideline on a return. Fullback Stanley Havili stripped Holliday on a punt return, setting up a touchdown from Luck to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the next play.

It was just how Irsay envisioned. All three areas contributing to Denver's first loss of the season.

"We could care less what anybody says outside of Colts Nation,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "We don't listen to the outside noise. You can say what you want to say, pick who you want to pick. We always know we have a chance. It's all about us.”
Peyton ManningAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAfter six dominant weeks, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos' aura took a hit Sunday night.
INDIANAPOLIS –- Three weeks ago, the Denver Broncos were being called unstoppable, undeniable. Now, after 3 hours, 43 minutes' worth of football inside Lucas Oil Stadium, they don’t even lead their own division.

Such is life as they move to Week 8 after an emotionally charged, hype-fueled week. A week that saw the Broncos leave the Manning Goes Back to Indy Bowl with what turned out to be their most disjointed, most mistake-filled performance of the season.

The Broncos turned the ball over three times, including a Peyton Manning fumble that went into the end zone for a safety, were penalized 12 times for 103 hope-crushing yards and simply looked out of sorts in any and all football matters. Add it up and you have the Broncos’ first loss of the season, 39-33 to the Indianapolis Colts -- a loss the Broncos essentially had coming.

"I think we can learn from it," Manning said. "We certainly have to improve from this game. We just weren’t as sharp, execution-wise, as we’d like to be."

The fact they almost played themselves back into position to steal this one, until running back Ronnie Hillman fumbled on the Colts’ 3-yard line with little more than three minutes to play, is a testament to their offensive power and Manning's ability to use every second available. But it also shows they are not immune to the things that befall the less fortunate in the league week in and week out and that simply unloading the buses isn't enough.

Start with Manning. The grand master of preparation was thrown the ultimate of curveballs. A rare return of a future Hall of Famer, still playing at the peak of his powers, to face his former team in a city that still loves him enough to pay tribute to him before the game. And the guy who has made a career of sorting things out, collating and categorizing, was on unfamiliar ground.

The Colts played a short video montage of Manning highlights before the national anthem that featured "Thanks Peyton" at the end of it. Manning acknowledged a frenzied crowd, saying "thank you" and "thank you very much" as he waved, before getting to work.

"I don’t feel it was distraction by any means, I was fully prepared to play," Manning said. "Like I said, I was probably a little more tired coming into the game than I have been coming into some others. I guess that’s probably just natural."

And in the end Manning’s numbers were staggering: 29-of-49 passing for 386 yards and three touchdowns. It was his sixth 300-yard passing game, his fifth three-touchdown game and his first loss of the season. He seemed unsettled at times behind an offensive line that has now been juggled to cover for two injured tackles.

The Colts also played the Broncos' receivers far more aggressively than anyone else has this season and sacked Manning four times after the Broncos’ first six opponents had sacked him a combined five times. The Colts, most notably Robert Mathis, repeatedly disrupted the Broncos’ timing, and Manning never really found the groove he has spent much of the season in.

Manning was asked if he thought his passes were more wobbly than usual Sunday night.

"I throw a lot of wobbly passes," he said. "I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too."

Asked if he had been injured on the second-quarter sack when Mathis had knocked the ball free, Manning deferred again: "It was a good hit, a good hit. … A healthy one is how we say it." Manning added that Mathis "is a great player who made a great play."

In the end, Manning called the week "draining" and said he had spoken to Colts owner Jim Irsay late in the week, before the Broncos had arrived in Indianapolis early Saturday evening. Irsay’s comments, made at the league meetings earlier this month and published earlier in the week, that he was "frustrated" the Colts won just one Super Bowl in Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis, brought a uncharacteristically strong response from Broncos coach John Fox on Tuesday, and they had the legs to run through the week as a tough-to-resist storyline.

"I enjoyed coming back here, I appreciated Jim Irsay, he was the one who called for that tribute. I appreciated that very much, I let him know," Manning said. "The game was disappointing for us, something we can learn from. I don’t see that as being a lasting factor."

Manning was quick to say he was relieved earlier this season to have faced his brother, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, for what Peyton said would be the last time in his playing career. And he used the worked "relieved" again Sunday night as he summed it all up.

The Colts have now beaten the Seahawks, the 49ers and the Broncos, and in doing so have flexed some muscle and flashed some moxie. The Broncos were not up to the challenge Sunday night and certainly didn’t play well enough to win this kind of game on the road if they were looking for some kind of measuring stick.

And while Manning won’t be the subject of this type of week, this type of game ever again, the current state of the Broncos' football affairs is worth a look.

Many of the Broncos' penalties, especially the 15-yarders called against defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, were avoidable and not the sort of thing a Super Bowl hopeful does with any frequency, especially when trying to construct a comeback. Turnovers in the kicking game and at running back continue to be two red flags.

And the injuries are starting to pile up, especially on the offensive line, and Champ Bailey’s foot is a concern again as well.

"We could have had a better effort, that’s part of it, get back in the lab and start working," linebacker Von Miller said.

"Most definitely we wanted to get this for Peyton. It’s different when you’re doing stuff for coaches. Peyton’s a great teammate … for all of us. It hurts, I really wanted to go out there and get one for him."

They all did. They just didn't do enough to get it done.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a rare sight, but one of the biggest hits of the Broncos-Colts primetime affair Sunday night may have come from Colts punter Pat McAfee.

McAfee, lit up the Twitter-verse with his tackle on Broncos returner Trindon Holliday just before the end of the first quarter Sunday night. Holliday had fumbled a punt just minutes before, the Colts had recovered on the Denver 11-yard line and took all of one play to score.

McAfee kicked off following the touchdown and Holliday, who has returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns already ready this season, took the ball 7 yards deep in the end zone and elected bring it out. The former NCAA 100 meters champion got loose up the Broncos sideline before McAfee leveled him after a 56-yard return.

Replays, however, showed McAfee made helmet-to-helmet contact on the hit, which would subject him to discipline if the league sees it the same way. It didn’t go un-noticed as the oft-fined Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh posted on his Twitter account:


Locker Room Buzz: Indianapolis Colts

October, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed in the locker room after the Indianapolis Colts' 39-33 victory over the Denver Broncos:

Feeling bad for Wayne: Quarterback Andrew Luck pointed the finger at himself on the play on which receiver Reggie Wayne was injured with 7:15 left in the game. Wayne’s knee buckled trying to come back for a ball underthrown by Luck. “I put a lot of blame on myself for missing him,” Luck said. “I don’t think there was anyone within a square mile of him.”

Oops, wrong person: Colts cornerback Vontae Davis took some razzing from his teammates after he referred to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as New England’s Tom Brady during a postgame interview with NBC’s Michele Tafoya.

No pressure: Colts coach Chuck Pagano said they didn’t put any pressure on Luck to go toe-to-toe with Manning. “Zero, zero,” Pagano said. “About the same amount he put on here when he signed his first contract, which was none.”

Locker Room Buzz: Denver Broncos

October, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Slow start: Broncos linebacker Von Miller waited a long time to play in his first game of the season after serving his six-game suspension. He played in his usual rotations in the Broncos’ base defense and specialty packages, but had limited impact, finishing with two tackles, one of those for a loss. "I feel great, I felt physically and mentally ready to go. They have a great team over there."

Fumbled opportunity: It seems as though every time Ronnie Hillman earns his way back into good graces in the backfield rotation, he has a stumble. Sunday, with the Broncos trailing 39-30 and just more than three minutes to play, Denver was on the doorstep of the end zone before Hillman fumbled at the Colts’ 3-yard line and Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea recovered. Hillman quietly shook off requests for comment following the game on his way to the bus.

Bailey injured: Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who missed the first five games of the season with a left foot injury, appeared to have reinjured the foot again Sunday. He was limping noticeably following the game and will be evaluated more Monday after the Broncos get back to Denver.

Protection issues: Quarterback Peyton Manning had been sacked five times in six games combined coming into the night and was sacked four times by the Colts, including two by Robert Mathis. The Broncos' injuries up front seemed to finally catch up with them. Left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and right tackle Orlando Franklin was sitting out with an ankle injury. The Colts repeatedly pressed the edges, including forcing a fumble and an interception with hits on Manning. "You have to overcome," Manning said.

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

October, 21, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 39-33 victory over the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium:

What it means: The Colts did something no other team in the NFL has been able to do this season -- beat the Broncos. On a night that was supposed to belong to Peyton Manning and his return to Indianapolis, it was Colts quarterback Andrew Luck who made the plays, and the defense did enough to keep the highest-scoring team in the league below its season average. Luck was 21-of-38 for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He got a lot of help from his defense. The Colts held the Broncos to 11 points below their season average. They did it by sacking Manning four times and forcing three turnovers. Manning finished 29-of-49 for 386 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Stock watch: The Colts suffered a blow at receiver when veteran Reggie Wayne's knee buckled while trying to come back for a ball thrown short by Luck with 7:15 left in the game. Wayne remained on the ground for several minutes as Luck, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Antoine Bethea, Coby Fleener, Trent Richardson and Robert Mathis stood around their teammate. With chants of “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie” ringing from most of the sold-out crowd, Wayne finally got up and made his way to the sideline and didn’t return. He finished with five catches for 50 yards. Wayne has played in 189 straight games, the most among active players.

Mathis finally gets to Manning: Mathis got in trouble for almost sacking Manning when the two were teammates during his rookie season in 2003. The two aren’t teammates anymore, and Mathis took advantage of the opportunity. Mathis sacked Manning not once, but twice. Mathis’ first sack caused Manning to fumble, and linebacker Erik Walden tried to recover the ball in the end zone, but he couldn’t gather it before going out of bounds in the second quarter. Mathis got his second sack on Manning in the third quarter. Mathis leads the league with 11.5 sacks.

What’s next: The Colts have their bye next weekend. They play at the Houston Texans in their third straight nationally televised game on Nov. 3.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

October, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: The Broncos found that their depth chart, like that of any other team in the league, can be dragged down by injuries. The Broncos sorely missed tackles Ryan Clady (injured reserve) and Orlando Franklin (ankle) on offense and cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), who left the game in the first half. The Broncos were choppy on all fronts, took several penalties, had ill-timed turnovers and paid the price.

Stock watch: Linebacker Von Miller didn’t show the benefits of the extra weight he had been quick to talk about in his return from his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. You would expect some rustiness on Miller’s part, but for at least his first game back, he was not nearly as explosive as he was last season. The Colts largely blocked him man-on-man and limited Miller’s effectiveness both in the run game and pass rush.

No Holliday: There is no question Trindon Holliday can change a game with his speed in the return game -- he has two touchdown returns already this season -- but there are times when he tries the Broncos’ patience. Sunday night was one of those times. With the Broncos leading 7-3 in the first quarter, Holliday fielded a punt deep in Broncos territory and then lost the handle during the tackle. The Colts got the ball at the Broncos’ 11-yard line and scored a touchdown on the next play.

A long wait: Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis is in his 11th season, and after being Peyton Manning’s teammate for nine of those seasons, he finally got a chance to sack Manning. Mathis’ sack and forced fumble in the second quarter led to a safety. The Colts then scored on the drive following the free kick to take a 19-14 lead. Mathis, who finished with two sacks, repeatedly blew by the Broncos’ tackles -- Chris Clark and Louis Vasquez -- and consistently collapsed the pocket.

What’s next: From one return to the other. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who was the Broncos coach for 14 seasons and two Super Bowl wins, will bring his team to Denver next Sunday. It will be the first time Shanahan will have faced his former team since the Broncos fired him after the 2008 season. The Broncos have a much-needed bye week waiting for them after the Redskins game.

W2W4: Colts-Broncos

October, 20, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Here are five storylines to watch for Sunday night's game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsMight Andrew Luck have to throw more for the Colts to be successful on offense?
1. The clock-management game: Stick with the style that got you four wins or put the ball in your franchise quarterback’s hands and have him test the NFL’s worst pass defense team in the league? That’s the quandary Colt offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton finds himself in against the Broncos. Hamilton's sticking with the run-first mentality. That’s the right approach to take because the Colts are sixth in the league in rushing and a ball-controlled offense keeps Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on the sideline with his helmet on, arms crossed and antsy to get his offense back on the field. But the Colts have to be effective in order to make it work, and they have to do it against a Denver team that’s only giving up 69.8 yards a game. The Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards and only had the ball for 21 minutes against San Diego last week. The Broncos are giving up a league-worst 338 yards in the air. The Colts have to score touchdowns. Field goals won’t cut it against Manning. Don't be surprised if Andrew Luck is forced to go back to being Andrew Luck of last season when he had to throw 45 times a game in order for the Colts to win.

2. Avoid the emotions: This game is all about Manning. Nobody else. Reggie Wayne referred to it as a circus. The Colts have downplayed Manning’s return by referring to it as just another game on the schedule. I wouldn’t have believed them if this were my first week covering them. But I actually believe them. They do a good job keeping their emotions in check when it comes to injuries, facing quarterbacks like Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, and they’ve done a good job of avoiding the hype with Manning so far. But doing it on the football field is the only thing that matters. The Colts obviously respect Manning, but it seems like they’re tired of talking about his return.

3. Don’t get frustrated: Manning will make plays. He’s proven that over and over throughout his career. The Broncos have the best offense in the league, averaging 476 yards of total offense and 360.7 yards through the air to go with 44 points a game. The Colts got frustrated on defense because they couldn’t get off the field on third down against the Chargers. Do that Sunday night and the Broncos will easily surpass their scoring average. Cornerbacks Greg Toler, Vontae Davis and Darius Butler are risk takers. They're not going to shy away from gambling, but they better make the play because Manning will exploit them if they make a mistake. Linebacker Robert Mathis has an advantage because Denver's left tackle Ryan Clady (knee) is out for the season and right tackle Orlando Franklin is doubtful with a knee and ankle injury. “They’re going to make plays,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said about Denver. “But when the opportunity arises for us to make plays, we got to make sure we make them. It’s kind of like playing golf. It’s what you do with your mishits, not so much what you do with your hits. It’s that philosophy going into the game.”

4. Leave the drops behind: The Colts hurt themselves with a case of the drops against the Chargers. They officially had four drops even though an argument could be made that they had more -- Darrius Heyward-Bey getting both hands on the ball on what should have been a 60-yard catch -- in the first half. Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Trent Richardson and, yes, even Wayne, can’t have a repeat performance this week. “I think it was more so of an isolated incident,” Hamilton said. “It just happened that way. We’ll make those plays. Drops are not an issue for our offense.”

5. Richardson factor: Richardson deserves his own storyline because he’s yet to be a significant factor for the Colts since they acquired him Sept. 18. He hasn't rushed for more than 60 yards in a game with them. The Colts want to control the clock. It starts with Richardson. It’s time for him to step up. He’s only averaging 3.1 yards a carry as a Colt. “As far as my comfort level, I’m ready to play,” Richardson said. “I don’t know what you call a breakout game, I guess over 100 yards or whatever, but if it happens it happens. As long as we win, I think it’s a breakout game for me.”

Broncos-Colts matchup of the day

October, 19, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As much as everybody likes to say quarterbacks are facing each other, squaring off or going head-to-head, they have enough to do on your average, run-of-the-mill Sunday without really worrying about what the other guy across the field is up to.

But Sunday’s prime-time affair between the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts will be decided in large part by which quarterback handles the swirl that has accompanied the game the best.

There is a theory Colts owner Jim Irsay launched the "Peyton Manning’s tenure wasn’t as great as we’d hoped" offerings as Sunday's game approached to try to crank up the pressure and affect Manning’s performance.

There is enough there that even former Colts coach Tony Dungy offered it up as a reason for Irsay doing something so ill-advised and, on many levels, ungrateful. Given a chance to shoot that theory down later in the week, Colts coach Chuck Pagano -- a Boulder, Colo., native -- didn’t dispel it, saying only “time will tell."

So, Manning, who is the ultimate thinking quarterback, may have to allow himself the freedom to let it fly in the game, take some chances, perhaps even put the offense in the hands of the running backs for a time to simply settle in. It will be an emotionally charged game for him at a place where he once firmly believed he would finish out his career.

As far the Colts’ Andrew Luck, there will be a lure, the same lure every ultra-competitive person feels at some point, to prove that Irsay made the correct decision. That the Colts are in good hands -- something most everyone in the league already believes, anyway -- as they move ahead in the post-Manning era.

It could be enough to embolden both defenses, especially the Broncos with linebacker Von Miller in the lineup for the first time after his six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. But with emotions running high, the setting is right for both defenses to take some risks to force the issue early in the game.

And that’s something Manning hasn’t seen a lot of this season as the Broncos’ first six opponents have played three- or four-man rushes 70 percent of the time. Either way, the franchise quarterback who manages it all the best will likely be the one who walks away with the win.

Colts next to try to slow Manning down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want to play against the best,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “That’s every week. Every week as competitors in the NFL, you want to play against the best. You got beat the best to be the best. It’s going to be fun.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- To find a franchise quarterback, to mine the biggest of football diamonds, is hard.

As in once-in-a-career difficult and only if you’re lucky. To find the keystone to build a franchise around is no small thing in the NFL, as the constant search for The Guy who can lead the way to where the victories and trophies are found always seems to be underway.

But in the end, it still may not be as hard as life as The Next Guy, or if the search isn’t successful, The Next Guys.

[+] EnlargeManning
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Peyton Manning is giving Denver fans hope for a Super Bowl title again -- just as John Elway used to.
A search John Elway, the Broncos' top football executive and Hall of Fame quarterback, calls "one, in this day and age, you have to succeed at. You have to find the guy who can lead your football team. If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time doing the things you want to do as an organization."

Elway was The Guy for the Broncos, his standing in the Rocky Mountain region still unrivaled, as the two Super Bowl trophies won in the last two years of his playing career sit in the lobby of the building he still works in. And after he finished his career on the field, Elway didn’t retire to some far-off golf course.

He remained in Denver operating his businesses, including a restaurant that bears his name and an Arena Football League team, and generally is never very far out of sight, or out of mind, of the quarterbacks who had to follow him or the fans who kept hoping to see it happen once again. A list that included Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler before Elway the executive signed Peyton Manning in 2012.

"It was probably difficult at times," Elway said this week. "There are always expectations. When you have a quarterback play for a long time and there’s always hope. That’s what a quarterback does, he gives fans hope that they can win a world championship. To me that’s what most fans want -- they want to win a world championship. When you have a guy who's the quarterback who's giving them, year in, year out, hope to win football games, to be a good football team, then all of a sudden you go to the unknown, it can be hard for everybody."

It’s why Sunday’s game is the rarest of events. Not only did the Colts move from one franchise quarterback, in Manning, to a player they believe is another in Andrew Luck, the two will be on the same field. And they are not both 30-somethings as Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young were when they met as former teammates in the 1994 season as Montana’s Chiefs faced Young’s 49ers.

This is more Brett Favre facing Aaron Rodgers in 2009. For Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium is past and future, hope and history, all mashed together in one place, something the level-headed Luck has accepted as part of his job.

"When you have a guy that was so successful for so long at a team you come in and you see 'OK, what are some things I can learn from him in talking to Reggie Wayne about preparation or some of the coaches that were here?'" Luck said. "But I never viewed it as having to replace Peyton. I viewed it as a great opportunity to play football and get paid to do it and get to play quarterback. How cool is that?"

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Luck has made moving on from the Peyton Manning era a smooth transition for the Colts.
Most personnel executives in the league would say Luck is a rarity in that regard and history is littered with quarterbacks who weren't as skilled as the Colts' 24-year-old both on the field and in the public eye.

For his part Plummer sits in the team's record book with the all-time best winning percentage for quarterbacks who started at least 25 games for Denver. Plummer, who was signed in free agency by former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan in 2003, went 39-15 (.722) in regular-season games for the team. But even he, with that success and three playoff trips, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game in the 2005 season, lived in Elway’s shadow.

"[Brian] Griese, before me, probably had it a lot tougher than I did in some ways. I think Brian took the brunt of it," Plummer said. "But I think you have to kind of accept it, you can’t change history, you can’t change who did what. I never thought I had to be John Elway or duplicate what he did. … Of course you think about it in the big picture, it’s John Elway, you want to give him the credit he deserves, the respect he deserves and at the same time you have to really focus on doing the best you can do, as you, for your team."

Ironically, Plummer said, it was Elway who gave him a key piece of advice along the way.

"He said just play hard, just play with all your heart, and people will see that," Plummer said. "That’s how I always tried to play."

But it plays out in every NFL outpost, the most vivid when a quarterback who earns the gold jacket that comes with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is compared with those who follow him.

And there is the case of Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, whose boss is a Hall of Fame quarterback, who sits with another future Hall of Famer in Manning each day in the team's meeting rooms. Osweiler has said, "I just try to soak it all up. There is no better place for a quarterback to learn how to be a quarterback in this league."

But there will be more big shoes to fill in more places, those who follow Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Rodgers, and yes, Manning a second time.

"It's just because everybody seems to want comparison all the time," Plummer said. "Comparisons, in anything, are not what it's about, I don't think whether we’re talking about football or not. But let a kid be like he is, let a kid be what he becomes. It would probably be easier for everybody."

Double Coverage: Broncos at Colts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That should do it, enjoy the game.


Broncos-Colts matchup of the day

October, 18, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has talked about the Indianapolis Colts' defense this week the name that often appeared in the sentence first was Robert Mathis.

And why not, the Colts outside linebacker is tied for the league lead in sacks, with 9.5, and once again the Broncos are likely to start a mix-and-match offensive line. Mathis, who was a defensive end during Manning’s time in Indianapolis, part of a disruptive tandem with former Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, was moved to outside linebacker in 2012 when the team switched to a 3-4 defense. And in his 11th season, he’s still quick off the ball, quick to the corner and keeps working to the quarterback even if he is initially stopped.

Mathis routinely grinds out sacks because he keeps pressing the issue, often after opposing linemen believe they have shoved him far enough past the quarterback.

Mathis often lines up on the defensive left, which would put him directly across from this week’s makeover in the offensive front. With right tackle Orlando Franklin sidelined because of ankle and knee injuries, the Broncos are expected to keep the lineup they used after Franklin left this past Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

That would put Louis Vasquez in Franklin’s right tackle spot and Chris Kuper in Vasquez’ right guard spot. It’s been a crash course for Vasquez, who has only started at guard in his NFL career, but was cross-trained at tackle at times in offseason workouts as well as training camp

“Louis knew he was probably going to play some right tackle probably about two weeks after he got here,’’ said Broncos offensive line coach Dave Magazu. “You kind of get into their comfort zone a little bit, make them learn a little more than their own position.’’

Vasquez is a technically sound player, so much so he has been flagged for penalties just four times in his entire career. He is a power player with imposing size, but he has the reach of a tackle and played well after making the move this past Sunday.

Mathis will be a stern test of Vasquez’ footwork however, given Mathis’ ability to change direction and catch linemen leaning. At 246 pounds Mathis still rushes with power at times, usually as a change of pace or to shove a lineman off balance once he sees a mistake has been made.

The Colts figure to test whatever the Broncos have to offer in the right side of the offensive line and the Broncos may need to bulk up the formation from time to time with their two-tight end look. Defenses have played it conservatively thus far against Manning. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has faced four or fewer pass-rushers on 70 percent of his dropbacks this season.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Score one for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on escaping the rush this week.

The question came with the disclosure his answer would be forwarded to Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, who like Luck was once a Stanford quarterback. But was he, Luck was asked, the best Stanford quarterback ever?

"No, probably [Jim] Plunkett is probably the best," Luck said with a laugh. "Go with that."

Ah, well played and just a sliver of a glimpse into why Luck already has made such a big impact in the league just 22 regular-season games into his NFL career and why so much more is expected. And while they were separated on The Farm by decades, there was more than one NFL personnel executive who had judged both before their respective drafts who believed Luck brought similar traits to the game as Elway did.

The size -- Luck is 6-foot-4, 239 pounds as compared to Elway’s 6-3, 215 in his playing days -- the late-game heroics, the willingness to run into harm’s way to go with the competitiveness and strength to get out of trouble, as well, were similar.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiBroncos executive John Elway called Andrew Luck the "complete package" in his evaluation of the Indianapolis QB.
In his current role as Denver's top football executive, Elway directed the Broncos’ efforts in the 2012 draft, the year Luck was selected No. 1 overall by the Colts, the same year Elway signed Peyton Manning in free agency. And as he looked at Luck in those pre-draft video sessions, did Elway see some of himself?

"I’m sure that's how I looked when I came out," Elway said with a smile. "I’m not sure how I would have looked to a personnel department or a GM who had to decide if I was going to make it or not. But I know this, you look at Andrew Luck, he had all the tools coming out. He had the tools you’re looking for when it comes down to a franchise quarterback, not only athletically, but mentally, the smarts and the competitiveness, so to me he was the complete package."

"He’s a heck of a quarterback," Manning said of Luck this week. "He played as a rookie, which is a challenge, but something I’ve always believed had a big impact on me and playing as a rookie I know Eli [Manning] said the same thing."

Elway has consistently said it isn’t the act of throwing the football that gets most young quarterbacks in trouble, or whether they run too much, or not enough, that separates those who succeed and those who do not. It’s a failure to grasp, especially in those first two or three seasons, what the job is in the NFL.

And the inability to deal with what comes with all of that, whether it's criticism from the outside, criticism from within his team or the expectations from everyone.

"That part right there takes more young quarterbacks down than the other part," Elway said. "It’s not the physical part, usually. The physical part, as far as athletically, throwing the ball, moving around, that doesn’t get most young quarterbacks. It’s the task of the job, having the job, the pressure that comes with the job, the responsibility that goes along with the job. To me that’s the hardest part to overcome when you start out. To me that’s the difference between the guys that become great and the guys that don’t."

Those who played with Elway and coached him will often say he was one of the most competitive people, in all things, they had ever encountered. Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan once put it: "John wants to win, at everything, at whatever he's doing. And he's willing to do what needs to be done to do that. Those are the guys you can win with because they won’t accept anything else."

Elway has said he wants to see it in any and all quarterback prospects. Not only the physical traits to do the job, but to look into the quarterback's eyes and see the desire to have the job, to grow in the job, to bounce back from the inevitable failures and growing pains of the job.

He said in his encounters with Luck he has seen all of that. And Elway believes that is always the first step on a quarterback's path to being the kind of franchise player every organization wants, the kind of guy who can make everyone in the huddle believe the best is yet to come.

"Because when you go and perform on the football field, to me that's when you gain the respect as a quarterback," Elway said. "It doesn’t matter when you're drafted, you gain the respect of your teammates when you play well in tough situations. They now realize when things get tough they can follow. That comes when you perform, the confidence grows in you.

"And you have to be the calming influence. On and off the field there's no question about that, it was like I never wanted anybody to know they hurt me," Elway said. "If they got a good shot on me and I couldn’t breathe, I made sure I got up to let them know they didn’t affect what I’m doing. It’s the same thing in that huddle, there’s a calming force you have to be, no matter the chaos, no matter if we’re all frustrated, no matter if we’re having a bad day, somehow you’ve got to be the guy to try to straighten things out, the one to figure out how to win a game. And if it’s not your day as a quarterback, figure out whose day it is and get them in a position to get everybody out of there with a win, some how, some way. Once you prove to yourself you can do it, then your teammates will trust you, rely on you and then you can make it something special."

Wayne on Manning: 'Like any other game'

October, 17, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne isn’t getting caught up in the hype surrounding his former teammate, quarterback Peyton Manning, coming back to Indianapolis with the Denver Broncos this weekend.

Wayne referred to this week as a circus because of the attention the game is getting.

All that’s been missing has been the elephants, clowns, cotton candy and peanuts.

“It’ll be just like any other game,” Wayne said. “It’s no different. I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”

Wayne spent 11 seasons catching passes from Manning -- 779 of them for 10,602 yards and 67 touchdowns to be exact -- and he still keeps in touch with him on the phone. But Wayne isn’t buying into the hype about facing his former teammate.

Wayne put into perspective how he feels about the game when he said he hopes to be in the locker room when the Colts honor Manning before the game. Wayne obviously respects Manning, but like everybody else inside the organization, the Colts' top priority is to avoid losing two straight games for the first time under coach Chuck Pagano.

“Yeah, fans love him. We’re friends. He’s friends with a couple guys in this locker room,” Wayne said. “I go against old teammates all the time, you know? I’m sure it will be a different reaction. You’re right. He did a lot in the community. But so did a lot of other guys. I’m just ready to play, ready to get it over with. It’s like the Ringling Brothers.”