It was billed as the biggest regular season game in Colts history. It probably was. And it's not often that a game with such a high billing lives up to expectations - but this one did. Easily.
In a battle for the ages, Peyton Manning went up against his former team and it's new superstar quarterback, Andrew Luck. The Colts came to play and in every area they were incredibly impressive, resulting in a 39-33 victory that came down to the final whistle. It was Chuck Pagano football - 60 minutes of team football. Each part contributed in a significant way to the win. Let's look at each area and see why it was so impressive and why they passed their biggest test of the season with flying colors:
Andrew. Luck. End of story. Playing in the biggest game of his career so far, going up against the man who defines the quarterback position in Indianapolis, Luck went head to head with the league's best quarterback - and outplayed him. He threw three touchdowns and ran for another, leading the Colts to a huge showing offensively. The success of the offense was all about Luck. Aside from him, however, there were other performers who showed up too. Darrius Heyward-Bey had by far his best day as a Colt, catching 4 passes for 44 yards and a touchdown and also adding a 30-yard rush on an end around. He did drop two passes, however, which shows that he is still not the consistent guy the Colts need him to be, especially after Reggie Wayne's injury (Reggie, by the way, also played well). But there's no way you could say it any other way, and that is that Andrew Luck was simply great. He made plays that Peyton Manning could never make, and every play Peyton made Sunday night Luck had a counter for. He was helped greatly by the play calling, but that performance by Luck is what he is capable of week in and week out. He's that good. And on the biggest stage of his career, Andrew Luck played perhaps the best game of his career. He was in a quarterback duel with Peyton Manning- and he won. Offensive Game ball: Andrew Luck
Stopping the Broncos' offense seemed like a near impossibility. And, indeed, they scored 33 points - and that was easily their worst game of the season. Give the Colts defense a ton of credit. It started with the pass rush and extended to the secondary. Robert Mathis was phenomenal - if he's not the defensive player of the week, then that award is a joke. Mathis recorded 5 tackles, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, and another tackle for loss, and hit Peyton Manning 4 times. The Colts as a team, led by Mathis, notched 4 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. It was the first time since 2007 that Peyton Manning had been sacked 4 times in a game, and entering Sunday night's game he had been sacked only 5 times all season combined. The Colts got to him four times. Mathis led the charge, and his strip sack that was recovered for a safety changed the game. From that point on, Manning was never the same and the Colts defense didn't let up. The secondary also deserves a ton of credit. They played tremendously. As team, the Colts batted down 9 passes and picked off another (linebacker Pat Angerer got the pick after Manning's arm was hit while throwing). Vontae Davis played the best game of his career. Darius Butler was huge in the slot. And the Broncos' receivers - an outstanding group of wideouts - were largely shut down by the Colts defensive backs in man coverage. It was incredibly impressive. They held Peyton to his lowest completion percentage as a Bronco and his 20 incompletions were his highest total since 2010. You saw the importance of them when you began to see them dropping like flies. Whenever a starting DB would go out (Davis, Toler, Butler, and Howell all went out with injuries at one point or another) Peyton would immediately target the new guy, and it worked. But when the Colts' starting secondary was in there, it was great. The defense as a whole forced 3 turnovers, sacked Peyton 4 times and hit him 10 times, batted down 9 passes, forced 6 three and outs, and, despite giving up 33 points, had nearly as impressive of a performance as they have had this season. Vontae Davis had a career day, but the defensive success all started up front, and that charge was led by Robert Mathis. Quietly, he tied his career high for a single season with 11.5 sacks - and that's through 7 games. He's on pace to break the single season sack record. And in a season with many great games, last night's was his best. Defensive Game Ball: Robert Mathis
The Special Teams:
Pat McAfee was having a bad season entering the game Sunday night, and his first punt of the game wasn't good. Turns out all "The Boomstick" needed to do to turn it around was to bring the boom. After a 56-yard return, Broncos excellent return man Trindon Holliday was all but gone - he had only McAfee to beat. And McAfee laid him out. Never before has a stadium been louder after the opposing team returned a kick 56 yards. But if the roof had been closed for that play, I'm pretty sure it might have been blown off. It was great - perhaps the play of the game - and it turned around McAfee's whole day. He went from a struggling, below-average punter to the game-changing, best punter in the league that he was last year. He punted 9 times (averaging 48.9 yards per punt) and pinned 6 of them inside the 20. 6 out of 9. That's incredible. By comparison, Broncos punter Britton Colquitt punted 7 times and pinned just 1 inside the 20. McAfee also did a great job at kicking off, too. There were more positives out of the special teams than just McAfee, however. Cassius Vaughn did a noticeably better job than David Reed at returning kicks (although he still was nothing great) and T.Y. Hilton did a good job returning punts. Adam Vinatieri showed up big time, hitting all three of his field goal tries, including from 52 yards out. And the Colts coverage unit stripped Holliday on a return and took it in for a score (the score didn't count because the refs missed the obvious fumble and blew it dead for whatever dumb reason). The special teams unit played a huge role in the game and they were simply tremendous. Special Teams Game Ball: Pat McAfee
The Coaching Staff:
This coaching staff deserves a world of credit for this win. It has been a roller coaster in terms of people's opinions of Chuck Pagano, but I've maintained throughout that he is a good coach who has bad games. Why do I think Pagano will be a really good head coach? Because of wins like the one over the Broncos Sunday night, the one over the Seahawks or the one over the 49ers. Those teams are 17-1 against the rest of the league, with the only loss being the 49ers to the Seahawks. They are a combined 0-3 against the Colts. Pagano's team came ready to play and they were totally prepared. He deserves a ton of credit for this victory, as his defense was very impressive in stopping the league's best quarterback (maybe ever). His defensive coordinator Greg Manusky often gets overshadowed by Pagano, but he also had a great game.
Late night/early morning text from a Colts authority: (Defensive coordinator Greg) Manusky deserves a head coaching job.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) October 21, 2013
Pagano was great. Manusky was great. But the most impressive coaching performance of the night came from offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. It's safe to say that fans have not been happy with his play calling this year, saying it was too run-based and limiting Luck. And it was. They were never going to beat the Broncos that way, and Hamilton knew it. And so in their biggest game of the year, Hamilton called what was unquestionably his best game of the year. He mixed up the play calls. He passed out of running formations and ran out of passing formations - and he passed out of passing formations, too! His play designs were superb (see the touchdown pass to DHB) and he called them at just the right times. The best thing Pep Hamilton did was let his quarterback loose. I talked about how great Luck was in this game, but it's not like that game should be abnormal. He can do that every game, Pep Hamilton just needs to let him. And on Sunday night, he did. I said that in order to win the Colts would have to be aggressive, and they were. They had the gas pedal down and they didn't let up. One of my favorite play calls of the night was unfortunately the one that Reggie Wayne was injured on, but on 3rd and short in the 4th quarter Hamilton called a play action pass. The Broncos weren't ready for it at all, and all Luck had to do was hit Reggie and he walks in for a score, possibly putting the game away. It was those type of calls that Hamilton made all night, and of all the performances from Sunday night, his was perhaps the one I was most impressed and happy with. Coaching Game Ball: Pep Hamilton
The 12th Man:
It was the biggest regular season game in Colts history. And the fans made it seem like more than that. It felt like a postseason game. I've been at a number of games at Lucas Oil Stadium, and last night was the loudest I've heard it - especially considering that the roof was open. It was consistent, too - every single play it was loud. The 12th man really got in Peyton's head. Whenever he tried to audible, the crowd got even louder - how that was possible, I don't know, but they did. The Colts fans passed this test with flying colors as well. The entire nation was looking on to see what to make of Colts fans when their most beloved player ever returned. They honored him appropriately - with a video tribute and then a thunderous standing ovation that lasted at least a good minute straight. But when the game started, they sent this message: "we love you, Peyton, but we love Luck more." It was surreal, and it was awesome. The whole situation honoring Peyton, both through his reaction and the crowd's, made people realize that Peyton is still in love with his former team. It made them see that Peyton will always be a Colt, he's just a Bronco for a few years now. It was tremendous and special. But at the same time, they were firmly behind Andrew Luck - more so than anyone could have imagined. And that's why Colts fans came away as huge winners in this one - they brought an incredible, playoff-like atmosphere to this game and kept it the whole game. And they managed to honor Peyton well and get behind Luck at the same time. It was better than I could even have imagined it and I loved it. Colts fans came away looking great, and Jim Irsay did too. This game was big for his reputation. And his team won it. Chuck Pagano gave him the game ball afterwards, and even though it doesn't necessarily fit in this category, I'm going to give him the game ball as well. Congrats, Jim. Your team and your fans passed this test with flying colors. Well done. Game Ball: Jim Irsay