The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Denver Broncos 24-13 on Sunday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. What did we learn from the game? Here are three takeaways (and we're using the team "learn" loosely):
Defense finally steps up against good offense
By now, you know the story: the Colts' defense this season played great against bad to average teams and played terrible against the good teams. Sunday's game doesn't change any of that. But what we saw Sunday was something we hadn't seen from the Colts all season long: a great defensive performance against a good offense. The Colts held the Broncos offense, which finished the regular season ranked fourth in the league in yards per game and second in points per game, to just 13 points and 267 yards - at home, nonetheless. They held the Broncos to just 3-of-15 on third down and 1-of-2 on fourth down, while forcing a turnover and allowing just 3.9 yards per pass. It was a terrible day by Peyton Manning and that's what everyone will be talking about, but the Colts' defense deserves some credit too. As cornerback Vontae Davis mentioned after the game, the Colts' gameplan was very similar to the Seahawks' gameplan against the Broncos in the Super Bowl last year - take the wide receivers out of the game. It's the same thing the Colts tried to do last year against Denver, and they did it again on Sunday. Their run defense, for the most part, did a good job. Their tackling, outside of that one awful fourth down play, was tremendous. And their pass rush? Well, Jonathan Newsome provided a Robert Mathis-like game-changing strip sack of Peyton Manning, which is exactly what the Colts needed.
Ultimately, it was a huge performance by the defense. The only teams they allowed less points to this season ended up ranked 14th, 15th, 30th, and 32nd overall in points per game on the year. The Broncos? They were second. Furthermore, the only two teams that the Colts had held under 20 points this season while on the road were the Jaguars and the Titans, ranked 32nd and 30th in the league in points per game. That was it. And then on Sunday, the Colts played what was easily their best game of the season on the road against one of the league's best offenses. Granted, Manning and the offense weren't anywhere near their sharpest, but it was still a heck of a job by Indy's defense.
Offensive line played a huge role in Colts' success
Last week against the Bengals, the Colts' offensive line played their best game of the season. But, of course, it was only against the Bengals, who didn't have a very strong pass rush whatsoever. Doing it against the Broncos would be a much tougher task, as they presented the pass rush duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. For the fifth time this season and just the third time since week three, the Colts started the same offensive line in consecutive weeks. And it worked out in a big way for Indy, as the offensive line became one of the biggest positives for the game for the Colts. The starting offensive line combination for the Colts of Anthony Castonzo (LT), Jack Mewhort (LG), Khaled Holmes ( C ), Lance Louis (RG), and Joe Reitz (RT) managed to keep Andrew Luck clean, not giving up a single sack. In fact, it was just the third game of the season in which the Colts didn't give up a sack and the first time since week four against the Titans. Against the Broncos' pass rush, that's a very impressive feat and one that goes a long way toward showing that last week's success wasn't a fluke, either. I think we saw very clearly what Andrew Luck can do when given time, and if the Colts keep him clean they'll absolutely be able to win any game. They'll have another tough test next weekend in New England, but their offensive line has two very good games to build on and are finally getting a bit of continuity too.
The torch has officially been passed
Ok, look, this isn't really anything new. I don't think that anybody who truly looked at this rationally would think that the Colts didn't make the right decision in moving on from Peyton Manning and I don't think anyone doubted that Luck is already emerging as one of the league's best quarterbacks. But Sunday provided a stark picture of the passing of the torch between the legendary Peyton Manning and the phenomenal young Andrew Luck. The Colts' quarterback was terrific, completing 27 of 43 passes for 265 yards and two scores along with two picks that weren't killers - they were essentially like punts. His stats don't tell the whole story, and it might have been one of the best 76.2 passer rating games I've witnessed. Luck was great and, well, Manning was anything but. It was sad to see, and if it was indeed his last game (if I had to guess right now, I'd say it was), it's a rough way to go out for the future Hall of Famer. It was one of, if not the, worst games I've seen him play. Luck, on the other hand, had a very good game and I think that on national television we witnessed an official passing of the baton of sorts. That's not to overreact to a media storyline from the game and it's certainly not to say that we learned anything about the Colts making the right decision, because we already knew that clearly. But with both quarterbacks on display, one stepped up and the other, hampered by age and injury, didn't. And in doing so, the torch from one generation to the next was passed. Andrew Luck isn't just the NFL's future - he's the NFL's present, too.