A playoff atmosphere, turnovers, players losing their minds, devastating injuries, a wild finish.
Oh, and two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Sunday night's contest between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos was one of the rare big games that lived up to the hype.
It started slow: lots of runs, lots of punts and it looked like this game might settle into a low-scoring defensive affair.
A flurry of points later, and the Broncos took a 14-10 lead on a 12-yard TD pass to TE Julius Thomas. But Thomas' TD would mark the end of the Broncos' offensive success for quite some time. The next 2 quarters would belong to Pat McAfee and the Colts defense.
It all began after the Colts went 3-and-out on their ensuing drive: A great punt would set Manning and the Broncos' offense up at their own 6-yard line. Three plays later Robert Mathis would force a fumble as he collected his 11th (10.5) sack of the season. The fumble - which was recovered just out of bounds by LB Erik Walden - would result in a safety.
Down 14-12, the Colts' offense took over at their own 34. It would take them 7 plays later, FB Stanley Havili would take a short Luck dump-off 20 yards for the go ahead score, and the Colts would never look back.
The defense would hold the Broncos scoreless over their next 5 drives - from 8:52 left in the 2nd quarter until 0:42 left in the 3rd quarter - including three 3-and-outs.
While the Broncos were struggling to move the ball, the Colts were doing anything but. Some great play from Andrew Luck coupled with some aggressive - and at times creative - play calling from OC Pep Hamilton, saw the Colts turn a 14-12 deficit into a 33-14 lead.
And look, this needs to be the main point. The Colts will talk about running the ball and stopping the run. They'll talk about being a ball control offense. They'll talk about time of possession and turnovers.
Here's reality: when your quarterback is Andrew Luck, you need to stop concerning yourself with the opposing quarterback, and make the opposing team concerned about yours.
Andrew Luck isn't going to be an underdog in any "head-to-head" match-up. He's a top-5 QB in the league right now. He can run and throw with the best of them. He can extend plays with his legs like few others. He has the mind to run the hurry-up. He has the skill to run any scheme at any time. Stop limiting him with your idea of what wins football games and just let him win football games.
The final score - 39-33 - would be closer than the play on the field would suggest. Some conservative play calling and a killer Trent Richardson fumble deep in Colts' territory gave Peyton Manning just enough rope to lasso one of his "what the heck did I just see?" Comebacks. But in the end, his homecoming would end in a failed onside kick.
The Broncos fell to 6-1. They'll battle the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West Crown.
The Colts moved to 5-2. This win gave a lot of short-term answers: they can beat any team in the league. But it left them with countless long-term questions.
1) What is Reggie Wayne's status? Reggie was injured on an innocent-enough play in the 4th quarter. The turf monster got him, and he left the game with a knee sprain. Is it an ACL tear? If it is, he's likely done for the year. Is it one of the other ligaments in the knee? if it is, there's a remote chance he could be back at the end of the year. Maybe it's something else. Maybe the Colts dodged a huge bullet. But the Colts' doctors were upset. Reggie was crying. If they dodged a bullet, they didn't think so at the time.
So where do the Colts go from here? Well, more playing time for everyone behind Wayne on the depth chart, for starters. This means DHB and Hilton will grab the lion's share of the snaps. LaVon Brazill will also take a more-prominent role with the team. I'd also expect the team to re-sign Griff Whalen from the practice squad.
This just highlights what the team lost when they lost Dwayne Allen. Without Reggie, you could still create a well-balanced offense around Allen, Fleener, Hilton and DHB. Without Reggie and Allen - the two guys who can really make the tough, physical catches - you're left searching for someone to step up on 3rd downs.
My biggest hope is this: the loss of Wayne, while enormous, should not send Pagano and Hamilton into a shell. Don't pull away from Luck and put more on the running backs. Let Luck be magical. Not every team has a Reggie Wayne. Put the rest of the players - especially TY - in a position to step up. MAKE THEM take the reins. Getting conservative, playing it safe, is the best way to make the Wayne injury hurt the most.
2) Who is this team? The Colts have now beat the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers. They have done so with dominant stretches in each game. At some point in time, Chuck Pagano's Indianapolis Colts are going to have to stop playing to their competition. Don't struggle with the Raiders, lose to the Dolphins and the Chargers, and then beat the best of the best.
You're not the Little Engine Who Could, you're the Big Engine Who Is.
Believe in yourselves. Play with that tenacity and relentlessness every snap of EVERY GAME. That's what Champions do. They don't wait for the attention and spotlight to be on the other team. They don't want for some perceived slight. They go out and do it.
It's your time. You just laid claim to being one of the best teams in the NFL. Go get it.
3) Does Grigson make a move? If Wayne is out for the year, Trader Grigs will likely be searching for some WR help. Does he go after someone like Josh Gordon? Kenny Britt? Both have character issues. Britt plays for a divisional rival. I'm not sure he'll be interested in either. Maybe there's some bigger deal he can pull off. Bruce Arians wanna lend us Larry Fitzgerald?
4) Watch the backfield - Richardson had 14 carries for 37 yards and a fumble. Brown had 11 carries for 23 yards and 3 catches for 42 yards. Brown definitely played more in the second half. The team has been patient with Trent, but the time for excuses is over. He's a 3rd-overall pick. He's talented. He's had a month and now a bye week. The team has shown him through touches: the time for excuses is over. With Wayne out, the Colts are going to have to go with the more effective back. If that's Richardson, great. If that's Brown, so be it. Draft status and sunk costs don't matter anymore. You'll have to earn every snap you get.
5) Great Win - I will never love another player the way I love Peyton Manning. I love Andy, but it's different. That's not a bad thing. This sounds weird.
Here's the point. I cried when he took the field. I cried when he waved to the crowd.
And then the Broncos kicked off and I wanted the Colts to kick his butt. And, honestly, they did.
I don't think this game was an indictment of "The Decision, Part Irsay." I don't think it was an indictment of Manning - he didn't choke. I don't think it changes anything that was said or done last week.
But it is done. I wanted to say goodbye to Manning. I wasn't at the game, so I did that through writing, through seeing him, through going through this. And now it's over. I loved every moment of the journey with Peyton Manning, Bill Polian, and the 1998 - 2011 Colts.
That journey is over.
I couldn't be happier with the new captain of this ship.
"He's a top-5 QB in the league right now."
So that puts Luck behind only: Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and that guy Irsay would have preferred from 2001-11? (Sorry; couldn't resist.)
And ahead of guys with *multiple rings* (again, head bob in Irsay's direction): Eli, Rothlisberger. And ahead of also-rans like Romo and Rivers. And pretty clearly ahead of everyone else from his draft era so far: Wilson, Kaepernick, Griffin, Newton.
24 games in, that's pretty damn impressive.
I'd take Josh Gordon. I my opinion he's the Brown they should have gone after in the first place. That said I don't think he comes cheep. Every GM saw the how Girgson over paid for TR and is going to ask for at least a second round pick for a starting WR.
Oh yeah, I also wore my #18 Colts jersey to respect the legend, AND to cheer my team on. Problem solved. And I got home late, got yelled at for being drunk, and slept in the spare bedroom. What a game!
Evading the pass rush is one of Luck's greatest strengths. We've known that from the beginning. Still, knowing that did nothing to lessen the awe of seeing him swim around linebackers and defensive tackles, scanning the field for options, tucking and running.
T Rich. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt since he signed. It even looked like he was improving as the weeks went by. Last night was terrible. I think the fumble did it for me. I know we're stuck with him and don't have any options, but damn... I didn't think he'd prove to be a bust so quickly. Even if Alabama did use him up, I figured he'd a have a few good years in the NFL.
My heart is sick for Reggie Wayne. The look on Marvin's face said it all. I hope the Grigson doesn't go loco dealing for another wideout. I think we can get it done with TY, DHB, Brazill, and Whalen. I think Luck can over come the lack of talent and make these guys look good.
Not sure how Grigson makes a move to replace Reggie. Too many other bidders driving up the price and our first round pick is already gone. My fear is that this win goes to Grigson's or Irsay's head and they just totally mortgage the team's future to chase a deep playoff run.
This is how Harrison's career was ended, a freak knee injury when he was older and he was never the same afterwards. He was doing so well. And Colts doctors initially diagnosed him with an ACL tear. Their tests aren't 100%, but they said they are looking for a miracle. I would be heartbroken. Reggie and Mathis are the 2 last symbols from the Manning era that are still performing at a high level, and this is the last way his career should end. We'll have to wait for the MRI. But it's not good, and they don't sound optimistic.
So imagine how differently the game could have ended had D. Thomas caught that 2 pt conversion. 39-32, only a single possession game. I know there are a lot of play that *could have* turned out differently, but what seemed to be a fairly routine catch turned into a crucial drop.
And when you call him "Andy", all I see is the bottom of Woody's cowboy boot. Every time.
It took 15 years for me to fully grasp what it felt like to be on the other side of Manning. The lead never felt safe ... until the kneel down at the end.
I couldn't do it.
I planned on rooting for Manning over the Colts, I argued for why I was doing it, and I prepared my mind to root for a different horse this one time. I had my reasons.
I was watching the game with a couple friends from my church, and they knew my plan. They knew my frustration with Irsay, my love-affair with Manning, and they understood that I was protesting last night.
I couldn't do it.
It felt weird trying, and internally I felt myself happy with every Colts tackle, found myself complaining when we started the game in Havili formation, found myself unhappy when Denver jumped ahead early.
Then lightning in the form of Robert Mathis struck. The sack/fumble/safety had me pumping my fist and cheering the horseshoe--and my friends just stared at me.
I learned something about myself today. I can't mentally decide to not cheer for my team--the heart runs deeper. Manning, oddly enough, felt like the enemy (a familiar one that I still love and appreciate). When the comeback started, I felt for the first time what countless teams have felt like against him when he starts making comebacks like that.
I will never love Irsay the way I love Manning, but as it turns out you can't stop a heart that bleeds blue.
My takeaways: There were a couple times when Indy looked pass happy and I said, "calm down, guys, run this next one." One of those times was the throwback to DHB for the TD. Score one for Pep.
If Mathis continues on this pace and bags 24 sacks, he'll have both the NFL time season record and the Cots all time record in the same year. He'll have passed Freeney, who I consider an all time great, and a HOF bubble guy. Can Mathis make the HOF and Freeney not? Wow, that's weird to consider, but possible.
First time I EVER saw Mathis smile was near the end of his post game interview. I LOVE his game face all the time.
Vontae Davis was prepping for Brady, but somehow he beat Manning. Go figure.
Fumble aside, Colt RBs ran MUCH better out of passing sets than the I. I don't think there's much to be made of criticizing TR's YPC as I think he and Brown ran about the same tonight. (How the hell did Moreno finish with just 40 when on at least three 1st and tens he ran for 8-9?)
Luck, the Euro-soccer fan, showed his stuff when 99 chest-bumped from behind about 4 seconds after he passed. Had Luck been set and kept his feet, probably no flag. He was not prepared for it and did a bit of a flop (IMO) after the stupid and gratuitous chest bump, and got us 15 yards and a new first down. Bravo, Andrew. Smart. Love that kid.
Awesome seeing Marvin tonight (though bummed I missed Edge).
Oh, and Reggie, I hope this doesn't end the way Marvin ended--you seemed much younger than 34 and I hope you recover over the bye and are back. But if not, please be good next year. I think they still need you.
No Monday Morning Moaner tomorrow for those who care. This is my Monday column. Moaner will return in 2 weeks. I think I've covered everything I cared to cover.
@pierrezombie right now, ahead of Brady in my opinion.
@Candlebox Sam Bradford and Doug Martin are also done for the year. And that was just this week. This is an absolutely brutal year for injuries, even by football standards.
@naptown_ninja I love Luck's willingness to run for those first downs, and his ability to do it is freaking amazing. But I hope they review that shot he took to his right shoulder from Von Miller on film this week and tell him to chill out just a *little* bit.
@naptown_ninja I really hope they put Whalen it the slot. He did well there during training camp and looked decent in the games he played. Sure as heck made more of a contribution than Richardson.
@matt_has Especially as the Colts' DBs started dropping out, I was almost certain Manning would tie it up.
Another "what if" would be if he'd just kept passing in the red zone instead of handing off to Hillman. That earlier drive that went ~50 yards in two plays was insane.
@mattshedd I unexpectedly ended up rooting for both teams equally. So on every play I wanted opposite things to happen, like some kind of sports schizophrenia. My perspective was flip flopping from Colts fan to Broncos fan about once a minute. And like you, it wasn't a choice -- I've followed both teams so closely for so long that I couldn't turn it off in either direction.
(I lived in Colorado for three years -- including Elway's two Superbowl wins -- before coincidentally moving to Indiana the same year the Colts drafted Manning, so the layering of loyalties is deep and pretty complex.)
Near the end, I seriously wanted it to go to overtime and end in a tie. (Oh, and for Mathis to stop beating the hell out of Peyton.)
That's the most mentally and emotionally exhausting game I've ever watched, including all those brutal playoff games against the Pats.
If they meet up again in the playoffs I think my brain will melt.
@mattshedd The game played out well for most Colts fans, a win coupled with Manning doing well and not getting hurt (I think he's okay, though he was off quote a bit later in the game). One thing that bothered me was the INT--great to have for us and the 3 pt cushion was appreciated, but it was not his fault--tipped by the DL. Yet another round of ammo for the folks who like to say "in big games, he chokes--see he threw an INT?" I'd have preferred a catch and fumble. But that's nit-picking.
@mattshedd I was, and always will be, pulling for the Colts. I think I was in the majority of folks who wanted to see a Colts win coupled with a solid Manning performance. But there were a few times I surprised even myself last night when I yelled something like "GET HIM!!!", willing the pass rush to sack the opposing QB... forgetting momentarily that it was PFM.
@mattshedd I was feeling similarly. Though I did want Manning to get a TD at the end.
I don't think I can ever root against Manning, but I can sure root against his team :-)
@Bobman1 Mathis reminds me of a gargoyle sometimes - so scary, but almost placid at the same time. Oh, and super badass.
@Bobman1 I had forgotten about Luck being a big Soccer fan. That is funny about the flop being a vintage soccer move.
@Bobman1 That "flop" followed by penalty was payback for 99 punching Satele's knee!!!
@GregC i'M SAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!!
ONE LESS POST FOR ME TO TELL HAMILTON TO SCR3W HIMSELF!!!
@GregC I am more than happy to trust your judgement on this.
@gizzardfanny @mattshedd Oh, I can *definitely* cheer against Denver, especially that dirty-ass Del Rio defense. Anyone see Satele complaining about getting his leg twisted in the pile? And those cheap shots after plays late in the game? All Del Rio. I remember a lot of that garbage from his time in Jacksonville, and I'm seeing it in the Denver defense.
Manning I'll always have trouble rooting against, and 15 out of 16 times I'll root for him (the 16th will always be when he faces the Colts, and then it's all about cheering for the home squad). But as long as Del Rio's on the sideline, I'll always want to cheer against at least half of the Denver team.
@DougEngland I only recalled it because of a Hasselbeck quote from a couple months ago--Luck invited him to go see a soccer game next weekend. Matt said "Ah, wife, kids, dog, I got too much going on, can't make it." When Matt asked him a few days later how it was, Andrew responded, "It was cool, it was in London." Not only does it highlight the crazy dichotomy that parents struggle with daily (they're tied down by their daily reality while young wealthy singles are not, damn them.... not that I'm bitter) but also that Luck, given the chance, will fly overseas to watch a soccer game. Not a big commitment like a week in Maui or skiing in the Alps (Andes, since it was summer) but just to spend 90 minutes watching soccer. Like some folks might catch a AAA baseball game. "Hey, what the hell, I have a few free hours...."
@Bobman1 I know the exact Hasselback quote you are citing and as soon as you mentioned the soccer angle, I knew you were spot on.