Colts deliver playoff upset for the ages

An Andrew Luck-led offense and stingy defense were too much for the Broncos in Sunday's AFC Divisional shocker.

DENVER — Reggie Wayne said it didn’t matter if his mother was playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos.

Ricky Jean Francois and Cory Redding politely requested that the entire NFL world should keep picking against them.

Owner Jim Irsay reiterated how he knew it was the correct decision in March of 2012 to let go of a legendary quarterback and begin anew with Andrew Luck.

Coby Fleener smiled and referred to the experience as “a blast.”

Life sure has its share of contradictions, none more unexpected in the sporting world on Sunday than the touchdown-underdog Indianapolis Colts knocking off the Denver Broncos 24-13 in an AFC Divisional playoff shocker at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The Colts sent quarterback Peyton Manning and the AFC’s No. 1 defense into the offseason with an impressive defensive performance and steady offense, much to the dismay of most in an orange-crush-clad crowd of 76,808.

“I’m so proud of the guys,” Irsay said, surrounded by media outside the Colts’ jubilant locker room.

The visitors’ reward for this upset was a trip to Foxborough, Mass., next Sunday to face the top-seeded New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The teams have met in the playoffs four times since 2004, the host winning each time, New England prevailing in three games at Gillette Stadium.

It’s the first time the Colts have won a road playoff game since Jan. 13, 2007, a 15-6 AFC Divisional victory at Baltimore. Manning was their quarterback then. The only two players still on the Colts’ active roster from that game are Wayne and kicker Adam Vinatieri.

“This is what I was hoping for,” Wayne said, when he re-signed with the Colts for these past two seasons. “I was hoping for this type of outcome. We brought in some young guys, but I was hoping those young guys came in hungry.”

Wayne didn’t even have a catch in this game. It didn’t matter. He’s still the team leader, and insisted nobody was surprised by the outcome. And he wasn’t surprised that Luck, in his third season, stepped up to the challenge in such a big game.

“Nah, dude keeps a calm posture every time,” Wayne said of Luck. “No matter what the situation is, no matter how bad we’re behind the eye ball, he gets everybody under control and believes every play is going to be a big play for us. He did a great job today.”

Luck brought the Colts back from a 7-0 deficit with two touchdown drives in the second quarter. Second-year running back Daniel Herron finished the first with a 6-yard TD run. Then Luck threw a 3-yard TD pass to third-year tight end Dwayne Allen.

Yeah, the young kids came to play.

“I think wins are sweeter no matter what,” Luck said, after he completed 27-of-43 passes for 265 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. “I don’t get caught up in the storylines, or the emotions of being the underdog, or the favorite. We go out to win and guys prepare to win, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

The Colts’ quarterback keeps his cool on the field and in interviews. About the strongest words of elation were, “To come on the road against a very good team in this round of the playoffs and get a win, that’s huge, and that’s awesome.”

It was their mission all along, to take that next playoff step. They lost at Baltimore in the opening round when Luck was a rookie. They won at home before getting bounced by New England last postseason. Now they’ve won twice to get a shot at an AFC title and, as improbable as it seemed at times this season, a berth in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz.

The Broncos went all-in to get back to the Super Bowl. The defending AFC champions bolstered the defense by adding such key standouts as defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib.

“You sit back and think about right now and you lost a game of a lifetime,” Ware said.

Manning was said to be recovered from a thigh injury suffered late in the season. But he didn’t look nor play like a five-time NFL MVP in the last three quarters after the early score. He completed 26-of-46 passes for 211 yards with one TD.

“In playoff football, you’ve got to bring your A-game,” said Manning, after his career playoff record dropped to 11-13 with nine one-and-done exits. “Truth be told, I thought Indianapolis played better than we did. That’s just the reality of the game.”

The Colts built on a 14-10 halftime lead when Luck threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks in the third quarter. The Broncos responded early in the fourth quarter with a field goal, when a touchdown was needed. Then the Colts chewed up some clock and drove into range for Adam Vinatieri to kick a 30-yard field goal.

The Colts finished with 364 total yards to the Broncos’ 288. And they sacked Manning twice — rookie Jonathan Newsome forced a fumble that Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman recovered.

A defense that had allowed 51 points at Pittsburgh and 42 to New England and to Dallas in ugly defeats delivered its strongest performance of the season.

“We knew we couldn’t let (Peyton) be the Hall of Fame quarterback today,” said Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois.

At game’s end, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano hugged his father, Sam, on the sideline. This is the state where he learned football from his dad, a state-championship-winning high school coach in Boulder, Col.

“It’s why you sacrifice, why you give up everything that you give up, and what our family’s sacrifice is — it’s for a moment like this,” Pagano said.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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