DENVER — They came to this city of thin air with lofty aspirations of taking the next playoff step.
That the Indianapolis Colts did Sunday.
The seven-point underdog Colts dominated from the second quarter on in a stunning 24-13 upset of Peyton Manning and the second-seeded Denver Broncos in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and players spoke all week about taking the next step, how they reached the playoffs in 2013, won a game in 2014 and wanted to get to the third round in this appearance.
This victory enables the fourth-seeded Colts (13-5) to advance to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against a familiar foe, the top-seeded New England Patriots (13-4).
The Colts lost 42-20 to the Patriots in Indianapolis in the regular season and 43-22 at New England in last postseason’s AFC Divisional playoff game.
But after losing their share of lopsided regular-season games to elite teams, including Denver 31-24 in the season opener, the Colts are confident they can accomplish anything after getting the best of their former franchise quarterback and the AFC’s No. 1 defense.
Manning suffered the ninth one-and-done of his playoff career and his postseason record dropped to 11-13. The five-time NFL MVP didn’t look himself, either, settling for lengthy lower-percentage deep passes, then failing to move the offense when the home team needed points. He finished 26-of-46 for 211 yards and one TD. He was sacked twice and lost a fumble that the Colts recovered.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck won the first road playoff game of his career and improved to 3-2 in the postseason. He completed 27-of-43 passes for 265 yards with two TDs and two interceptions.
The Colts fell behind 7-0 early as Manning threw a 1-yard TD pass to Demaryius Thomas in the opening quarter. A partisan Broncos crowd of 76,808 had the stadium shaking.
But Daniel Herron scored on a 6-yard run and Andrew Luck threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Allen to give the Colts a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
The Broncos were forced to play catch-up. And nothing seemed to work.
After a Denver field goal in the third quarter, Luck threw a 15-yard TD pass to Hakeem Nicks for a 21-10 lead.
All the Broncos (12-5) could muster was a field goal after that. And the Colts matched that with their one field-goal drive, then a defensive stop to send most of the orange-clad fans heading for the exits.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.