INDIANAPOLIS – In many ways this game was set into motion on March 7, 2012.
That was the day in which the Colts officially parted ways with the face of their franchise for the past 14 years. For the man standing next to owner Jim Irsay at the podium of the main hall at the team’s West 56th Street complex during his goodbye news conference, only two things were certain on that day.
Peyton Manning would never play for the Colts again, but would play somewhere else.
When the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player signed with Denver a few weeks later the thought of a homecoming immediately went through the minds of some Colts’ fans. Both teams nearly met in the AFC Divisional Round in 2012, but the Baltimore Ravens intervened.
Of course that would have been at Sports Authority Field, a mile high and nearly a fourth of the country apart from Manning’s former home. Sunday’s Broncos-Colts game will be at the heart of what was and likely will be the legacy of one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks.
“I really can’t tell you,” said Manning when asked about what the experience will be like when he plays his first game in Indianapolis opposite of the Colts. “It’s just too hard to predict. I think I’d be wrong to try to predict or guess. It’s certainly a unique game.”
That’s an understatement during a week chock-full of hype concerning the return of Manning to face his former team. From hints of under achievement during his era from owner Jim Irsay to the thousands of fans who are debating just who to root for at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night when the ball is kicked off after 8 P.M., there has never been anything like it in the “Circle City” since professional football came to the city in 1984.
Irsay says a pre-game ceremony is planned to honor Manning before he takes the field to try to beat the Colts for the first time in his career.
“It’s just going to be a tremendous presentation in terms of honoring him,” said Irsay of Sunday’s pre-game festivities. “I think it’s just, again, the tip of the iceberg in the sort of honoring. Again, the jersey is already put away in a box and it’s already gathered dust. In terms of a statue, in terms of different things in the future, what he means to the franchise is incredible and so it’s going to be, I think I know the way that Peyton thinks and he knows the way I think.”
Manning didn’t want to get into his relationship with Irsay following his departure a year-and-a-half ago and the quarterback’s comments this week reflect a player who isn’t sure how to know what’s to come on Sunday. He took the middle position of trying to treat the Colts game as if it were any other-even if outside perception is the contrary.
“Well, I feel like it has to be a business trip. It’s a tough team we’re playing. It’s a very good defense that we’re trying to get ready for,” said Manning of the Colts. “It may sound strange, but it’s an unfamiliar opponent. A lot of guys on defense that I’ve never played against and even a lot of our players haven’t played against.
“Certainly didn’t play them last year, so, it’s not like a division game or a team you played in the playoffs that you’re a little more familiar with.”
One thing that’s for sure is that the current Colts are familiar with him, even if the majority of the players on the team never played with him.
“You just got to play sound football and execute fundamental football. He’s going to find his matchups and pick them out,” said linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who admitted to watching Manning for years while with the Colts. “He’s going to make his checks, survey everything, read your coverage like a book.
“You got to try to disguise as much as you can and you got to do what you’re supposed to do out there.”
Andrew Luck will face Manning in more of a perception battle on Sunday night, having been the one who took over the reigns from Manning full-time after three quarterbacks subbed in for the injured quarterback in 2011. Luck is aware that many will have their focus on him as well as No. 18
“I don’t think there’s any problem for anybody keeping focused,” said Luck of Manning week. “It’s a football game. We’re not ignorant. We know who’s coming to town. We know it’s a great football team and a great challenge for us, a great opportunity for us.
“I don’t think there will be any problem keeping focus this week.”
But will the crowd be behind him or the former quarterback of the Colts? Luck seems to have an idea.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of mixed emotions from the fans but they’ve been great all year,” said Luck of the fans. “I’m sure it will be raucous, loud and rowdy throughout the game.”
After all, it’s a game some 19 months in the making.