All eyes on Manning, but it's Luck and the Colts that deliver
Indianapolis hands Denver its first loss after the Broncos romp through the early part of their schedule.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Down the hall was Peyton Manning, so that's where everyone was. Down the hall. Local media, national media, people were at this game to watch the Broncos quarterback in his return to Indianapolis, and they were at this postgame to hear his comments.
In the Colts' locker room, where grown men were shrieking and laughing, there weren't many cameras. Weren't many reporters. The Colts had just knocked off one of the last two unbeaten teams in the NFL, beating the Broncos 39-33 to open up a two-game lead in the AFC South.
"Where is everyone?" yelled starting guard Mike McGlynn, jersey and shoulder pads off, glowering in his uniform pants. "Where ... are ... you?"
Down the hall, Mike. That's where everyone is. They're talking to Peyton Manning about his first loss of the season, and his team's first loss in more than a year's worth of regular-season games. The Broncos had won 17 consecutive regular-season games before Sunday night, and needed one more victory to tie New England for the third-longest streak in NFL history. The record was in sight, too. The record was 23 consecutive regular-season victories, and it was set in 2008-09 by the Indianapolis Colts. Quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.
Only, the streak is over. The Colts won to improve to 5-2, two full games ahead of the second-place Titans in the division.
"Where is everyone?" McGlynn yelled again. "Seventy! Eighty! Ninety! Who said we were going to lose by 90?"
Don't know who said that. Don't know that anyone said that. But the Broncos had been lighting up everyone, not just beating teams but bludgeoning them by more than 17 points per game. And Manning did Sunday night what he has done all season, doing it ugly without great arm strength or even great spirals, but putting the ball in spots where only teammates could catch it and run with it. He completed 29 of 49 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns.
But he didn't win this game, in part because of a harassing Colts defense that did to him what it has done to quarterbacks for years, and in part because of the guy who replaced Manning.
First, the defense. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis came into the game with 38 forced fumbles-on-sacks on his career, and Manning became No. 39. Mathis rocketed into him in the second quarter deep in Denver territory, sending the ball flying into the end zone, where the Colts recovered it just over the boundary for a safety. That cut Denver's lead to 14-12. On the ensuing possession, the Colts scored a touchdown to take a 19-14 lead, and they never trailed again. Eventually their margin grew to 33-14, and from there they hung on with help -- again -- from the defense. Linebacker Erik Walden hit Manning as he was throwing in the fourth quarter, sending the ball fluttering for an interception by linebacker Pat Angerer. That set up an easy field goal and a 39-30 Colts lead. Game over, essentially.
The game was put out of reach by Andrew Luck, Manning's replacement. He threw for 228 yards and three touchdowns and a 99.5 passer rating, and it was his third touchdown where the mental aspect of his game was reminiscent of the intellectually formidable Manning. On this touchdown drive, Luck had driven the Colts to the Denver 15 in the final minute. He completed a 7-yard pass to Reggie Wayne with less than 20 seconds left, and although Luck had a timeout he hurried to the line, took a quick look at what the Denver defense was giving up and called a play for tight end Coby Fleener. Fleener caught the short pass and made it into the end zone with 10 seconds left in the half, a touchdown that came not from the arm strength but the intellect of Andrew Luck.
"We work on those quick situations, and he calls what he sees at the line and it goes from there," Fleener said. "He had a lot more options than me on that play, but he came to me with it."
Fleener was talking quietly, which made him hard to hear in the Colts' locker room. Winning NFL locker rooms are always happy locker rooms, but this was different. This was louder, happier than anything I've seen from a winning locker room in October, before the season's midpoint.
It was unusual from my perspective, and it was unusual from Pat McAfee's perspective. I'd remind you that McAfee is the Colts' kickoff man, but you know that. Everyone knows that, it seems, after the hit McAfee laid on Broncos returner Trindon Holliday late in the first quarter. Holliday had a 56-yard return on the play, but nobody was talking about that on Twitter. They were talking about the monstrous hit McAfee delivered. I asked him after the game if he had any idea what his hit had generated online, and McAfee turned his back to me and grabbed his phone. Then he turned back toward me.
"See this?" he said. "I've played in the Super Bowl, and after that game I had maybe 50 text messages. I come in here after this game, and there were 75. All my friends -- every one of them -- letting me know they saw the hit."
Did they tell you it looked dirty? Did they tell you that people were wondering if you targeted Holliday's head? That's what I said to McAfee. Here's what he said to me:
"Nobody said that, but listen to me," he said. "When I was running [at Holliday], my eyes were closed. I can assure you, I wasn't targeting anything."
Then McAfee started cackling, because it was funny and because he was happy. He sounded like everyone else in this locker room. Across the way was the starting right guard, Mike McGlynn, out of the shower. He was wearing slacks now. Still no shirt.
"Where are you?" he yelled.
Down the hall, Mike. They're talking to the guy whose team just lost to the Colts.
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