DENVER — As NBC-TV analyst Cris Collinsworth rode the elevator down to the ground floor of Sports Authority Field at Mile High late Sunday night, he admitted, “I didn’t think it was going to get that close.”
Neither did a sellout crowd of 79,939, most of them decked out in orange. Nor the few blue-clad Colts fans who braved the hostile environment or countless others watching the primetime game at home.
Bottom line, a despondent Luck summarized a 31-24 setback to Denver as “A loss is a loss.” After he had blamed himself for every offensive error, including putting the defense on the field too often early on, Luck finally admitted, “We probably didn’t deserve to have a chance at the end of the game, but I do commend the guys’ fighting spirit.”
It was his last comment before leaving the lectern and putting this maddening season opener to bed. The Colts had started so slow, suffered so many self-inflicted wounds, were seemingly passed off the field by Peyton Manning, yet still had one final shot late to tie it.
That had to mean something, and it probably would mean more were it not for the avalanche of mistakes the Colts committed to fall behind 24-0 in the first half.
Luck and the offense failed to capitalize on several ideal scoring opportunities. He tried to quick-snap a fourth-down sneak at the Broncos’ 1 and was stuffed.
“I didn’t get in,” he said, “so it was my fault.”
A defense without suspended outside linebacker and reigning NFL sack champion Robert Mathis inexplicably stiffened after halftime, allowing only one touchdown. A game that should have been decided came down to a final drive, and a fourth-and-6 Luck throw from the Broncos’ 39 to wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
Broncos rookie cornerback Bradley Roby came from behind and made contact with Wayne, who lost his footing as the pass over the middle bounced off the receiver and hit the ground.
“Yeah, let’s just say I slipped,” Wayne said with a smile.
The replay showed Roby hitting Wayne in the head. Wayne looked behind him for a yellow penalty flag that didn’t come.
“I’ve got to keep my feet,” said Wayne, whose return from ACL surgery translated to nine catches for 98 yards, but at least one fewer grab than the 14th-year pro needed. “If I keep my feet, I catch that ball. That’s something we work on every day. I just lost my footing and couldn’t get to the ball.”
The Colts came so close to extending this game. The comeback included Andy Studebaker recovering an onside kick.
Luck, for all his self-proclaimed faults, completed 35-of-53 passes for 370 yards with two passing TDs, a rushing score and two INTs. A leaky offensive line, which had issues at times with the Broncos’ ferocious pass rush and especially when other defenders blitzed, allowed Luck to be sacked three times.
“I’m proud of the guys, I’m proud of the effort,” Pagano said. “I know they’re going to fight for four quarters, I know they’re going to play 60 minutes, but we’ve got to learn to play good, sound, fundamental football for four quarters.
Sure, the players could play better. The coaches made mistakes, too. It wasn’t until after Broncos tight end Julius Thomas caught his second TD pass while defended by a linebacker that the Colts’ sideline changed the coverage. Then Thomas shoved safety LaRon Landry out of the way and caught a quick slant for his third score and a 24-0 lead in the second quarter.
“Julius is the guy we got to try to find a way to get the ball to him, no matter what the defense they’re playing,” said Manning, who exacted a modest measure of revenge for last season’s 39-33 homecoming loss at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Manning joined retired Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre as the second NFL passer to defeat all 32 NFL teams. He completed 22-of-36 passes for 269 yards with the three strikes to Thomas. He wasn’t intercepted and sacked only once.
“I think it means you have to be old,” he said. “You have to be 38 years old probably at least to beat all 32 teams. I don’t think I will have that one up on the mantle or anything like that.”
Of the Colts’ resilient second-half comeback, which saw Luck throw a 41-yard TD pass to tight end Dwayne Allen and a 9-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, Manning said, “Thank goodness our defense picked us up when the offense wasn’t doing their job quite as well.”
The Colts have played 32 consecutive regular-season games without losing two in a row. Pagano’s streak of avoiding back-to-back losses in his three Indy years stands at 33.
The Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) come to Lucas Oil Stadium next Monday night to try to end those streaks. And the Colts are well aware, after how this opener played out, there’s plenty of areas in need of improvement.
A loss is most definitely a loss. But this one was not without reason to have hope for the future.
“I don’t really have an answer,” Luck said of the second-half comeback. “We just seemed to make more plays.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.