INDIANAPOLIS – While venue itself was the complete opposite, there was a cliched feeling of closure south of Downtown on Sunday.
With the roof wide open to let in the cool air and moderate breeze gusting through Lucas Oil Stadium, Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis for the first time wearing the dark blue and orange of the Denver Broncos.
It was a conflicted moment for many fans in the crowd who were at first torn between rooting for the man who brought them a Super Bowl championship and the new Colts who would face him on a national stage.
But over 60 minutes a few things were proven about where the Indianapolis professional football franchise stands on a number of levels. For one, the crowd didn’t veer towards the Colts and then Manning, but stayed firm with the former to produce an electric atmosphere that was among the loudest in stadium history even with the roof open.
At the same time, the current group of Colts showed that they have not only put the Manning-era in the past but maybe on their way to establishing their own identity within the franchise.
On defense and offense Chuck Pagano’s team showed the swagger of a Super Bowl contender in overcoming an early deficit to take the lead of the Broncos and never let it go in a 39-33 victory over Denver on Sunday night. An effort that improved the Colts to 5-2 on the season-but more importantly served as a way to pass the torch from one generation of the team to another.
“It’s big,” said quarterback Andrew Luck of the win. “Proud of the guys for just working, trusting the process, not getting caught up in the BS, so to say, surrounding it. We just worked and we knew we had a great football team coming in here and again, couldn’t let other things distract us, or else they would expose us.
“We’ve got great veteran leadership. Rob Mathis sets the tone. Reggie (Wayne) sets the tone. We just follow them and it managed to work tonight.”
Luck is the one who has had to follow in the footsteps of Manning since he was drafted first overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. As the atmosphere and game teetered in the first half it was Luck who brought clarity to the Colts’ offense. He passed for 199 yards in those first 30 minutes and spread around a trio of touchdown passes to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Stanley Havili and Coby Fleener.
He would open the scoring in the second half with a ten-yard touchdown scamper, completing it with a confident spike that sent the crowd to a fever pitch.
“He’s a terrific young talent, very smart, good leadership, very strong, and athletic in the pocket,” said Broncos head coach John Fox of Luck, who finished with 228 yards passing. “I thought he made some plays with his feet to extend plays today and he’s an excellent quarterback.”
Fox has one on his end too, but the Colts’ defense took Manning out of his normally comfortable element rather quickly. Greg Manusky’s unit forced seven three-and-outs against an offense that had averaged just three-a-game through the first six weeks of the season.
Robert Mathis set the tone for a pressure-heavy defense as he collected two-of-the-four Colts’ sacks on the game, including a forced fumble on Manning that resulted in a second quarter safety. Erik Walden, a first year member of the team, forced and recovered a fumble deep in Indianapolis territory that stopped a drive that seemed destined for a Denver touchdown.
While the Colts allowed 429 total yards to Manning and the Broncos they also held them to a season-low 33 total points.
“It’s no secret to the sauce; just have to get after the quarterback,” said Mathis, who leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks. “I wish I had some kind of magical potion, but that’s just get to the quarterback.”While at the same time not letting the attention over the one on the other side get to them. Perhaps that was the biggest test for many still judging the potential greatness of the Pagano-led Colts and the team passed with flying colors amid a tidalwave of hype the past few weeks.”We talked about putting our blinkers on Wednesday. Put the blinkers on,” said head coach Chuck Pagano. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff surrounding this game. A lot of noise. Block it out. Keep your eye on the finish line and do what we need to do Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to give ourselves a chance to bring home the victory and that’s what they did.”
In the process, they have set their own course in the history of the horseshoe.