Peyton Manning does not need to dominate for the Colts to win: Manning had his worst game of the season and one of his worst in recent memory, but he kept it together for a quarter and a half — the entire first quarter and the second half of the fourth quarter — to put up 28 points and win the day.
The defense deserves some credit for bailing Manning out for his two critical third-quarter interceptions — though Matt Prater deserves a pat on the back for missing a 42-yard field goal in the third as well — when Colts fans were looking for Manning to put the final nail in Denver's coffin and he kept coming up short. Manning ultimately made the plays he needed to make on third down and in the red zone, overcame his mistakes and put them behind him, and won for the first time in his career in a game in which he threw three interceptions.
Matchups are the key: As it turns out, Andre Goodman was more than capable of shutting down Pierre Garçon as Garcon finished with only two receptions for 39 yards on nine targets. The Colts — and ColtPower — thought this was the matchup to exploit and Goodman foiled that plan by locking down on Garçon, playing physical with him at the line and with the ball in the air, forcing the ball out of Garcon's hands on a couple of key plays that could have given Indianapolis some momentum.
Brian Dawkins was able to take Dallas Clark away for much of the game, but the Broncos decided to put a linebacker on Clark in the red zone. When Manning saw that matchup, he took full advantage of it and Clark caught three touchdown passes. Champ Bailey finally had a good game against Reggie Wayne and Denver made Manning pay when he tried to force the ball in Wayne's direction.
Bad matchups happen, and it's how a team adjusts to those matchups that count and Indianapolis adjusted well, picking its spots. The only time the Colts will encounter a secondary this talented again will be if they play the Broncos again in the playoffs. They will no doubt apply what they learned in this contest to that game.
The linebackers make the run defense work: Denver was held to 95 yards rushing and 3.2 yards per carry. They were repeatedly unable to push the Colts defenders off the ball in short yardage and goal-to-go situations. That is partly because Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir continue to do a good job of occupying blockers at the point of attack.
It is mostly because of the aggressive, stellar play of Clint Session and Gary Brackett. The talented duo were again omnipresent and attacking, making every big play that was presented to them. Larry Coyer deserves credit, the defensive line deserves credit, but Brackett and Session deserve the lion's share. It was the second consecutive tremendous performance by these two men and they are quickly becoming the heart and soul of the run defense.
Running when it counts will have to be good enough: Manning and company opened up by passing the ball heavily in the first half and stuck with the passing game long after it wasn't working. It almost cost them the game, but they were able to run the ball when they needed to in the fourth quarter, executing another clock killing, back breaking seven minute drive in the fourth quarter, successfully jamming the ball down Denver's throat even though they knew a run was coming. It will be interesting to see where the Colts go with the running game when Donald Brown returns.
Were those blitzes? The Broncos were having success throwing the ball in the second half and that was primarily as a result of the fact that Kyle Orton had too much time to scan the field and find Brandon Marshall.
Indianapolis adjusted, dialed up some blitzes, and put pressure on Orton, forcing him to rush throws and several of those passes were off target. When the Colts opened up a two score lead, Coyer went back to calling a conventional defense, Orton could not adjust, and Dwight Freeney broke through for what was essentially a coverage sack that set up a long fourth down and salted the game away.
Pat McAfee could be the Colts rookie of the year: Yes, Austin Collie has been impressive, but McAfee gives Indianapolis a weapon that haven't had the past few seasons. His gross average has not been impressive, but he puts a lot of air under the ball and allows the coverage unit to close to the return man. Where he may be most valuable is on kickoffs, where he still puts a lot of air under the ball, but also gets distance.
He ended up with a 41.6 yard net average and three of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, with the other two holding dangerous return man Eddie Royal to just three yards. As the games get tighter, those yards will be worth their weight in gold.
The secondary can't afford any more injuries: The Colts have some quality depth and some rookies that are playing beyond their experience level, but they had better hope that the injuries to Jerraud Powers and Melvin Bullitt are not serious. Their opponents in the postseason will have more than one option at receiver and they will need to have capable players to cover those guys.
Indianapolis can't let teams hang around: The past two weeks, the Colts have allowed the Titans and Broncos to hang around and come close to stealing a win. The teams in the playoff bracket that they will face as the number one seed have more explosive offenses than does Denver and those offenses will make Indianapolis pay for crucial errors like the ones they committed in the second half.
Now that they've clinched homefield advantage, they really need to think about the fact that they need to slam the door on a team when the opportunity presents itself. If they can't, the consequences could be season ending.
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