The Broncos commanded the game from the drop and it took some late garbage-time heroics from Andrew Luck for the Colts to even make the game interesting. But he did succeed in closing the three-score lead the Broncos had established, down to a single score.
On that day, there was no question which was the better team. 18 weeks later, the lines are more blurred. Just yesterday, the Colts demolished the Cincinnati Bengals; a team who defeated the Broncos in week 16, and earned a trip to the Divisional Round for the second-straight year.
The Colts are on a roll and they're led by one of the most talented quarterbacks in the game. But it's not just the measurables and tools that Luck possesses, that sets him apart from his peers and makes him such a formidable opponent, it's his will to win.
When John Fox looks at the Colts and the journey they've traveled since week 1, he sees a remarkably capable opponent.
"I think when you look at that big of a gap, their offensive line has changed; our offensive line has changed," Fox said Monday. "It was a tough opener. They are a very, very good football team. I believe [they have] been to the playoffs three years in a row. [QB Andrew Luck] is as good a young quarterback as there is in the league. Much of that has not changed. Statistically over the stretch they are if not No. 1 then I think top three in the league. They’re very capable. When you get to the elite eight, you usually are.”
The elite eight. For the fourth-straight season, the Broncos have made it to the rarefied air of the last eight teams standing. But even so, they've been unable to convert it into a Super Bowl title.
They came close last season, but no cigar. This time around, they'll have to contend with the team who fired Peyton Manning and the man who replaced him as the face of the franchise.
Since he was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, Luck has done what Manning could not do in Indianapolis; lead the Colts to the post-season in each of his first three seasons.
“I think what’s unique about Andrew is he’s not just mobile," Fox said Monday. "He can make the throws. You saw the throw he made yesterday stepping up in the pocket. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s not just a little scat-back type. He’s got the playing strength to go along with the mobility, so I think he’s unique that way. What he’s accomplished may be better than any quarterback has ever accomplished early in a career to-date. I think he was pretty highly touted that way and I think he’s been as advertised.”
Russell Wilson might beg to differ with coach Fox on that point, but Chris Harris, Jr., who produced the double whammy in 2014, earning a Pro Bowl nod and All-Pro honors, has faced off against Luck twice in his career. And apparently, Luck has made an indelible impression on him.
“Andrew Luck’s a great quarterback," Harris said today. "He’s very mobile; he has the arm strength to throw deep. He can make all the throws and also he can make all the throws on the run. So that sets him apart from a lot of quarterbacks and we know we’re going to have to cover a little bit longer."
As the season has progressed, so have the weapons around Luck. T.Y. Hilton produced a Pro Bowl season. Donte Moncrief came alive down the stretch and Coby Fleener finally converted the potential the Colts saw in him as a NFL draft prospect, into production on the grid-iron.
Daniel Herron has brought big-play ability to the Colts backfield; an element that had been missing heretofore. Despite his issues with ball security, he is a skilled dual-threat running back and the Broncos will have to contend with him between the tackles and in the passing outlets.
In the Colts Wild Card victory over the Bengals, he caught 10 passes and accounted for 141 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Fox spoke about the Colts running game today.
“They’re committed to it. I think Pep Hamilton, their offensive coordinator, does a terrific job," Fox said. "They use big people, big linemen, multiple tight ends, what we call 13 personnel. They’ve got some misdirection, trap-type plays. You’ve got a mobile quarterback. You’ve got the read option. There is so much they are capable of. Their running back situation has been a little bit like ours. They’ve rolodexed it through there. [RB Daniel] Herron, No. 36, has become their bell cow guy and has done a terrific job. [He] had a big game both in the passing game as well as the running game.”
But you don't get to the post-season based on offensive prowess alone. Even the record-setting Broncos of 2013 needed their defense to play lights out in the playoffs. And they did, despite being without Von Miller and Harris, for much of the time.
The Colts defense has begun to peak at the right time. They've weathered the storm of a grueling 16-game season and the ultimate prize is on the horizon. But they'll have to get through their former captain, and the Broncos, first.
These two teams have faced off in the playoffs twice before. The Colts lead the series 2-0. Ironically, both victories came with Manning behind center. There's some kind of cosmic philandering going on by the football gods. To put Peyton Manning, who owns a perfect record against the Broncos in the playoffs, into orange and blue and pit him against his former team, with all of the chips on the line, the gods must be crazy-brilliant.
It's a game replete with storylines. And by the time the week is over with, the Broncos will be sick and tired of talking about them. But make no mistake, this Colts team is not the same squad the Broncos trucked in Week 1. They're older and wiser. And it will take every last ounce of will for the Broncos to emerge victorious on January 11th.