Game plan: Colts vs. Broncos

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Nov. 7, 2015) – Five areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the unbeaten Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning at Lucas Oil Stadium (CBS4, 4:25 p.m.):

Ready, set, go?: Only Chuck Pagano knows what ultimately convinced him to fire offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but high on his list had to be the chronic slow starts, particularly those at the hands of Andrew Luck. The offense has been outscored 41-27 in the first quarter and 110-64 in the first half. Luck has failed to generate a first-half touchdown in four of his six starts. Too often, a faulty offense has put a pedestrian defense in bad situations and games have gotten out of hand.

The mission moving forward and the overriding order for new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is for the offense “to start like we finish,’’ according to Pagano.

The offense has fashioned several impressive closing kicks when it’s found itself on the brink. It has scored 74 fourth-quarter points, fifth-most in the league, and forced overtime at Carolina after trailing 23-6 with 10 minutes to play.

If the season-long trend is to end, it must do so against a defense that has set the tone from the outset. Denver is the only team yet to allow a point in the first quarter. That seven-game stretch is tied for the fourth-longest to open a season in league history.

Don’t be surprised if the Luck-led offense attempts to generate early productivity by going with a more up-tempo, tight ends-centric approach.

Dealing with the “D’’ in Denver: Since we’re on the subject, let’s consider the comprehensive dominance that is the Broncos’ No. 1-ranked defense. It’s allowing 261.1 total yards, 171.9 passing yards and 16 points per game, all NFL-lows. Opponents are averaging just 4.1 yards per play, another league-leading total.

Wade Phillips’ group has a league-best 29 sacks, led by DeMarcus Ware (5.5) and Von Miller (4). Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. have combined for five interceptions, and returned three for touchdowns. The defense has allowed five touchdown passes, tied for fewest in the league, and opposing QBs have a 69.6 passer rating.

And last Sunday, the Broncos limited Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards and the Packers to 140 total yards.

Had enough?

“The timing isn’t great,” conceded Pagano of facing Denver on a short week and following the coordinator change. “We’ve played some really good defenses, but none like this. You put the tape on, and I’m not being funny here, it’s very reminiscent of the 2000 Ravens defense.

“These guys are phenomenal. They’re suffocating.”

Get No. 12 on track: Whether a byproduct of Hamilton’s play calling, an erratic offensive line or injuries, Luck is mired in the worst stretch of his career. It’s hard to imagine the Colts regaining their collective balance until their QB gets his act together.

Luck’s 71.6 passer rating is No. 31 in the league; only unemployed Ryan Mallett’s 63.6 is worse. He leads the NFL with 12 interceptions despite missing two games, and has had at least two interceptions in seven of his last eight starts, including the playoffs. Too often, he appears hesitant and uncertain in the pocket.

“We’ve got to play better at that position,” Pagano said. “I think we all know you can’t turn the ball over at that position and we’ve got to get that corrected and that’s our mission right now . . . get Andrew going, playing at the level we all know.

“We all know what he can do and we’ll get there, he’ll be back.”

Unbeaten challenge: There’s no overstating the task at hand. Denver (7-0) is one of the four remaining unbeatens, and the Colts (3-5) still are wandering aimlessly. They’ve lost three straight for the first time since 2011 and will fall out of first place in the AFC South if the streak hits four. Co-leader Houston is idle this weekend.

This isn’t uncharted territory for the Colts. They’ve faced a team 6-0 or better 11 times in club history, and managed three victories. The last win? That would be in 2013 when 6-0 Denver and Manning, making his first appearance in Indy since being released in March 2012, were handled 39-33.

And here’s another interesting note. According to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, only two teams in NFL history have faced 6-0 teams or better in back-to-back games – the 2004 Steelers and 1934 Lions. The number doubles today. The Colts entertain the Broncos after losing to 6-0 Carolina Monday night. The Packers test the 7-0 Panthers today after losing at Denver last weekend.

Manning vs. Luck at 60: Luck and Manning are the headliners at Lucas Oil Stadium, and they’ll forever be linked. Manning, the first overall pick in 1998, led the Colts out of the darkness, turned them into perennial championship contenders and played a major role as Indy truly became a football town. Luck, taken No. 1 overall in 2012, replaced Manning and picked up where he left off.

The sample size is large enough to offer perspective on how the first 60 games of Luck’s career, including the postseason, compares with his predecessor:

  • Luck – a 37-23 record (3-3 in the playoffs), 57.9 completion percentage, 16,415 yards, 108 touchdowns, 67 interceptions, an 83.2 passer rating.
  • Manning – a 30-30 record (0-2 in the playoffs), 60.6 completion percentage, 15,417 yards, 104 touchdowns, 74 interceptions, an 85.1 rating.

Despite Denver’s strong start, Manning is struggling with a 75.1 passer rating, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Colts still anticipate getting his best.

“He’s still Peyton,’’ linebacker Robert Mathis said. “I wouldn’t make anything more or less than that because if you take him lightly, he’ll hang 60 on you.’’

Manning is 1-2 against his former team.

Prediction: Broncos 30, Colts 20.