Peyton Manning’s much-anticipated homecoming will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when he leads his Denver Broncos against the Indianapolis Colts tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. This also is a matchup of first-place teams as the Broncos (6-0) look to stay undefeated and atop the AFC West, while the Colts (4-2) will try to maintain their lead in the AFC South.
Manning has 160 regular-season victories in his career, but this will be his first game against the team that drafted him and he spent 14 seasons with. Andrew Luck, who like Manning was a No. 1 overall pick in the draft, put together one of the most productive rookie seasons by a quarterback in 2012 and has already shown improvement through the first six games of his sophomore campaign.
3 Things to Watch
Colts’ Quarterback Lineage on Display
Even before Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay stirred the pot with some surprising and ill-timed comments earlier this week, everyone knew that this game was going to be all about the quarterbacks. Peyton Manning went from the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft to a four-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion during the 13 seasons he played for the Colts. He is largely responsible for the 141 regular-season victories the Colts enjoyed during his tenure, along with the eight division titles and 11 total playoff appearances. Despite the circumstances surrounding the end of his relationship with the Colts, Manning’s place among the greatest to ever play for the franchise is secure. Indianapolis was very fortunate in that it was able to move on from Manning by finding its next franchise quarterback a little more than a month after releasing its previous one. Luck was taken with the first pick of the 2012 draft and immediately proved his worth by leading the Colts to a nine-game turnaround (2-14 in 2011 to 11-5 in ’12) and a playoff berth. Luck also broke the NFL record for passing yards (4,374) by a rookie and earned an invite to the Pro Bowl. Manning and Luck have repeatedly said they are friends and not rivals, but the comparisons between the two are inevitable and pretty much unavoidable. Manning went 7-15 in his first 22 career games with the Colts, Luck is 15-7. Luck is considerably more mobile than Manning, but No. 18 has considerably more experience under his belt and is off to the greatest statistical start of his Hall of Fame career this season. There’s no argument that both are critical to the success of their teams’ offenses, although they go about their business in different ways. Regardless of which quarterback finishes with better numbers tonight, we should just sit back and enjoy watching a Hall of Famer and one of the league’s brightest young stars ply their craft on national TV.
It’s Miller Time
With his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy finally over, Denver’s defense is closer to being whole with the return of Von Miller. The All-Pro linebacker finished second to Houston’s J.J. Watt in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year last season after registering 68 total tackles, 18.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown. Miller is the Broncos’ most dangerous pass-rusher and he has the ability to make a game-changing play on every down. His mere presence on the field brings a different dynamic to this defense and also helps deepen a linebacking corps that is dealing with a neck injury to starter Wesley Woodyard. Because of the piles of points the offense is scoring, the defense hasn’t had to shut out anyone, which is why the unit’s statistics are somewhat skewed. While the Broncos are allowing the most passing yards of any team in the NFL, the defense is No. 1 against the rush. Miller’s return will help both aspects, but it’s his ability to put pressure on the quarterback that could have the most impact, starting tonight. Miller’s been waiting six long weeks for this game, so don’t be surprised if he makes his presence felt early and often against the Colts.
No Lack of Talent on Offense
While all the attention will be on the quarterbacks, neither Manning nor Luck is winning this game all by themselves. For one, Manning needs his teammates to catch his passes, while the Colts aren’t one to just let Luck drop back and sling it all over the field. Denver’s passing offense, with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas sharing the wealth, is far and away tops in the league, averaging nearly 50 yards more per game than the No. 2 team (Atlanta), but the Broncos also are averaging 115 yards rushing per game. Knowshon Moreno has staked his claim as Denver’s No. 1 running back, and he has made the most of his opportunities. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry and leads the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns. The Colts are eighth in the league in rushing at 130.7 yards per game, but have dangerous pass-catchers of their own in wideouts Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener. Running back Trent Richardson has gotten off to a slow start with his new team, but he’s capable of breaking off a big play at any point. There’s no doubt that Manning and Luck will play huge parts in deciding the outcome of tonight’s game, but they won’t be alone. There are talented playmakers at each skill position on both offenses. It’s entirely possible that one of them, and not Manning or Luck, ends up being the biggest star in this game.
Denver Key Player: Champ Bailey, CB
As important as linebacker Von Miller’s return (see above) to the starting lineup is for the Broncos’ defense, Bailey’s season debut last week shouldn’t be overlooked. After missing the first five games because of a foot injury, Bailey picked up six tackles and three passes defended last week against Jacksonville. Denver’s defense is last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (337.7 ypg), but it’s sure to get better with the return of the seven-time All-Pro cornerback. Last season, Bailey had two interceptions as the Broncos finished third in the league in passing defense. They clearly have a long ways to go if they want to repeat that success this season, but getting Bailey back in the secondary is a good start.
Indianapolis Key Player: LaRon Landry, S
Landry is a linebacker who plays safety, as evidenced by the 26 total tackles he racked up in the first two games of the season. Those also are the only tackles he collected in his first season with the Colts, as Landry has missed the past four games because of an ankle injury. He practiced fully this week and will be back out there tonight, just in time to add his physical presence to the Colts’ secondary. Indianapolis defensive backs know they have their work cut out for him going up against Peyton Manning and his stable of pass-catchers. But rest assured that wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and tight end Julius Thomas, as well as running back Knowshon Moreno will be well aware that Landry is on the field. Any Bronco that has the ball will have their head on a swivel, knowing that Landry is ready, willing and able to lower the boom.
Despite his curious comments earlier in the week, Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said that Peyton Manning would be honored by the Colts before the game begins. All Manning really cares about, however, is what happens after kickoff. Manning is 82-32 in his career in Indianapolis, but this will be his first game at Lucas Oil Stadium as a visitor. He may not come out and say it, but you have to think that he really wants to win this one.
Andrew Luck and the Colts have grabbed the lead in the AFC South thanks to a renewed commitment to running the football and a stingy defense. Both the offense and defense will be tested tonight, as the Colts just don’t have the firepower that the Broncos have on offense, while Denver’s defense has been the best in the NFL in stopping the run and it is getting another key piece back in All-Pro linebacker Von Miller.
Manning and the Broncos won’t blow the Colts out in this one, but No. 18 turns in another memorable performance in front of his former fan base and wins his first game against the only NFL team he has yet to defeat. What other outcome were you expecting from his homecoming?
Denver 34, Indianapolis 24