Indianapolis Colts fans gave their former quarterback Peyton Manning a rousing ovation prior to his first game against his old team. Then current Colts QB Andrew Luck really gave them something to cheer about.
Luck tallied three passing touchdowns and added another on the ground as he lead the Colts past the previously unbeaten Broncos 39-33.
Helped by Denver’s miscues on offense, defense and special teams, Indianapolis pulled out to a 19-point fourth quarter lead and held off a furious comeback that saw the Broncos pull to within six before a series of costly turnovers put the game out of reach.
“In some ways I'm somewhat relieved this game is over," Manning told the media after the game. "Hopefully, we'll have a chance to play these guys again, because that would mean we made the playoffs. If there is a next time, it may be a little bit easier, because it was somewhat of an emotional week and it can be a little bit draining."
Manning looked drained in the early going. After opening the scoring with a quick touchdown drive on two long passes to wide receiver Eric Decker, Manning looked antsy. Part of that may have been nerves, but the play of Denver’s offensive line didn’t help; the Colts sacked Manning a season-high four times, including a second-quarter strip-sack from Robert Mathis that was recovered for a safety.
"That's my job, that's how I help my team," Mathis said. "It felt good."
Andrew Luck, meanwhile, looked as poised and focused as he has since being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft to replace Manning. He finished the night 21 of 38 for 228 yards, no turnovers, and four total touchdowns. He too faced a barrage of questions about filling the cleats of Manning.
"I have never looked at it as the guy that replaced Peyton," Luck told NBC after the game. "I just looked at it as a chance to play football for a great team. The guys in the locker room have made it easy."
For Denver, nothing came easy. Trindon Holliday, who has been a special teams standout for the Broncos since they signed him mid-season of last year, lost a fumble at the 11-yard line that the Colts turned into a touchdown one play later. Denver was flagged for 30 yards in personal foul penalties on a touchdown drive in the third quarter. And with just over three minutes to go and Denver threatening to make it a one-score game, running back Ronnie Hillman lost a fumble on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The missed opportunities cost Denver dearly, cornerback Chris Harris said after the game.
"We just beat ourselves," Harris said. "We had an opportunity to win the game, and we just made too many mistakes. We probably made more mistakes tonight than we have all season long together."
At 6-1, Denver still looks like one the the NFL’s best teams. But with division rival Kansas City improving to 7-0 to remain the league’s lone unbeaten team, Denver finds itself in an unfamiliar place; looking to play catch-up.
"This is a game we need to learn from," Manning reasoned after the game. "We had four turnovers and still somehow had a chance to win that game."
Denver looks to get back on track as they host former head coach Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins next Sunday.