INDIANAPOLIS — The chatter in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box grew louder with every Peyton Manning pass completion on Sunday. Playful at first, reporters united in jest as speculation mounted for what seemed inevitable.
Manning was a heartbeat away from breaking Brett Favre’s all-time record for most career passing yards, on his old stomping grounds while wearing Denver Broncos orange.
It wasn’t a question of if, more like when. First down? Play-action perhaps?
Three yards from history, two more passing yards to tie. There’s no way, Manning wasn’t going to do it. Not with more than six minutes left in the game. Not against an Indianapolis Colts defense, minus safety Mike Adams in the second half, sidelined with an ankle injury.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if they stopped the game-winning drive to honor him,” someone sounded off before the Broncos offense setup for first-and-10 from Denver’s 33 and the Colts up 27-24.
Given the trend of weeks past, the odds weren’t in the Colts’ favor. Winless in five non-divisional games this season, 0-2 against unbeaten teams and on a night where a sporadic sea of orange around the stadium grew restless, nothing seemed certain.
Only someone once beloved in the Circle City as Manning could spark such a response in enemy territory or inspire something as bizarre as split personality jerseys, stitched to perfect dualism.
Held to 80 yards passing in the first half, Manning made up ground fast with 137 yards in two second-half series to tie the game at 17 and again at 24 with his second passing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
The stage was set for greatness and another Colts meltdown. The TV cameras locked in on No. 18 and somewhere in production trucks and studios, graphics outlining Manning’s historical path were being crafted for deployment.
But it was the Colts that stole the show — with more than records or just one game on the line. There were much stronger undercurrents at play for a team on the verge of catastrophic collapse. And though speculative, jobs were at stake.
Already watching the ax fall on former Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton five days prior, an 0-4 stretch heading into the bye week would have undoubtedly sped up the doomsday clock.
Colts cornerback Darius Butler froze the second hand.
Interception. Colts ball. History denied.
“He’s (Peyton Manning), one of the all-time great passers that this league has seen, so they’re going to make plays,” Butler commented after the Colts handed the Broncos their first loss of the season. “But we made some plays down the stretch to finish them and that’s what it’s about.”
For four weeks, the only thing that mattered more than winning for the Colts was rediscovery, of themselves, of consistency.
Three wins against woeful AFC South teams gave the Colts little clout. They needed at least one in a grueling four-game portion, many considered the proving ground of their schedule.
New England. New Orleans. Carolina. Denver.
With Rob Chudzinski in charge of the offense, the Colts found their mojo — for one week at least — the most important of the 15.
Shutout three times in the first half this season after going scoreless a mere three times in the first half through the entire Andrew Luck and head coach Chuck Pagano era prior, a 17-0 lead was a welcomed change.
The running game produced. Luck even ran wild — without fear of taking a hit —when an opening presented itself, much like he did his rookie year.
The offense shocked the league’s No. 1 defense and the Broncos had few responses for the Colts early whose only avoidable mishap came when an Omar Bolden 83-yard punt return cut their lead to 10 points just before halftime.
Production bred confidence for a Colts team starving for the magic that formerly labeled them AFC Championship and Super Bowl contenders.
“The guys made a decision, ‘Hey, we’re going to be efficient, we’re going to play with energy,'” Pagano said afterward. “We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. It was great focus, efficiency.”
Simple put, it was about time.
While many will ask, where’s this team been? The truth is, the answer was in plain sight.
“I don’t have the answer,” Luck remarked. “I think it’s probably a little bit of soul searching in the building – players – figuring out who we want to be. The truth of the matter is we have the pieces. That’s pretty darn obvious. With all the respect for every opponent we’ve played, we were also committing some terrible self-inflicted negatives … we didn’t do that today.”
Nope. Instead, they stayed the course, from start to finish, and for one night, they played like who they were suppose to be — up to their potential.
“Well, it was just a road game, playing a team that came out and played well today,” Manning said. “We you don’t play as well as you would like on the road, it’s hard to win against good football teams. They are a good football team.”