The most hyped game of the year did not end the way Peyton Manning would have preferred. The Indianapolis Colts handed the visiting Denver Broncos their first loss of the season, beating them 39-30 Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It was a bittersweet homecoming to be sure. That this is a city that still loves Peyton Manning was loud and clear as the home crowd roared for him throughout a 90-second video tribute that featured some of the most memorable moments of the Manning era, including a TD pass that made Peyton-to-Marvin the most prolific quarterback-receiver duo ever, the dramatic come-from-behind win over New England in the 2006-07 AFC championship game, and of course, Peyton hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVI.
It was obvious Peyton was moved. He removed his helmet and mouthed the words “Thank you,” gesturing with his hand to his heart and waving to fans. It was a touching moment, and a long time coming for a city that never got closure, and never had a chance to express its gratitude for all he did for this city. Can we please get a statue?
Fans came with signs that bore their sentiments. But while this city will always love Peyton Manning, it didn’t take Colts fans long to show they are first and foremost Colts fans, as evidenced by the decibel every time Manning and the Broncos offense took the field. It was perhaps summed up best when the Jumbotron cut to a fan holding a sign that read “Thanks Peyton But Tonight I’m A Colts Fan.”
The Broncos won the coin toss but opted to defer, which proved to be a good decision as the Colts offensive opened with 3 consecutive run plays that went nowhere. It took Manning just 2 plays and 46 seconds to give Denver its first score of the night as he hit Eric Decker for a 17 yard TD pass. It looked like it was going to be one of those nights.
But it was the face of the present-day Colts, Andrew Luck, that made plays early and often, starting with a 10-play, 65-yard drive, capped by a 27-yard Adam Vinatieri field Goal.
When Denver kick returner Trindon Holliday fumbled on the ensuing drive, it took Luck just one play to put another 6 points on the scoreboard, hitting Darrius Heyward-Bey for an 11 yard TD pass. Adam Vinatieri tacked on the extra point to put the Colts up 10-7.
Manning responded in the second quarter with his second TD pass of the night, a 12-yarder to tight end Julius Thomas that came on an 8-play, 51-yard drive.
As if Peyton needed a reminder that this was no longer his house, Robert Mathis delivered one in the form of a strip sack. It was recovered by the Colts in the end zone for a safety. The play would have been a touchdown had the defender’s shoulder not gone out-of-bounds.
On the Colts ensuing drive, Luck hit fullback Stanley Havili for a 20-yard TD pass. With the extra point the Colts extended their lead to 19-14. They would not trail again.
But Luck didn’t do it all by himself. The Colts defense, which came into the game ranked 5th in the league in points allowed, held the Broncos scoreless on their next two drives.
Luck then led the Colts on a 6-play, 50-yard drive that took just 1:25 and resulted in an 8-yard TD pass to tight end Coby Fleener.
The Colts took a 26-14 lead into halftime.
In the 3rd quarter Andrew Luck showed that he can also be a threat with his legs, as he scrambed into the end zone, extending the Colts lead to 33-14.
But never count out Peyton Manning, not when the ball’s in his hands and time is left on the clock. He rallied the Broncos, leading them down the field 80 yards in just 3 plays, and connecting with receiver Demaryius Thomas for a 31-yard TD pass. The subsequent two-point conversion attempt failed. A Knowshon Moreno run would later narrow the Colts lead to 36-30.
After the Broncos forced the Colts to punt, Manning had yet another chance to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, as he has done so many times throughout his career. But on the very first play of the drive, linebacker Erik Walden hit Manning’s arm and the ball sailed straight into linebacker Pat Angerer’s arms, setting up a successful 42-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, and making it a two-score game.
“Hopefully we’ll have a chance to play these guys again because that would mean we made the playoffs,” Manning said. “I think if there is a next time it may be a little bit easier just because it was somewhat of an emotional week and it can be a little bit draining, I will say that.”
The game was also not without its casualties. The Broncos lost cornerback Champ Bailey, who left the game with a foot injury. The Colts were dealt a devastating blow when Reggie Wayne left the game with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. An MRI performed Monday confirmed that Wayne suffered a season-ending ACL injury. No one on the team has better hands than Wayne, and the Colts will be hard pressed to find a replacement. The loss now puts the team down 5 offensive starters.
But if there’s one thing this team has shown, it is resiliency. It is a trend that began last year, and has continued this year. Replacing the production of Reggie Wayne will not be easy or even possible at all. But you can bet they will try.