Colts owner Jim Irsay called it the most gut-wrenching decision of his career. Peyton Manning admitted he had no idea what to feel, mostly numbness, in his first few days post-Colts release.
Andrew Luck, faced with following a legend and having to rescue a franchise, shrugged it off. His 52-pulse approach has served him well.
In fact, everyone has made out in this arrangement. Peyton Manning has the Broncos in great shape in the AFC West. The Colts are the first wild-card team in the conference.
Dreaded if-the-season-ended-today alert: They’d meet in Denver for the playoffs as things stand. Wouldn’t that be fun?
But what that playoff matchup would not need to tell us is that both teams made out perfectly in what could have been a tricky situation this season. Typically, tide-shifting moves like this — and really, Manning leaving Indy brings us all the way back to Montana leaving the Niners — tend to favor one team or leave the other in rough shape. There’s usually an adjustment period, but there’s none of that so far for either team.
"The kid, he continues to amaze," said Reggie Wayne, who became great under Manning’s watch but has received a jolt with Luck. "Hopefully I can help, you know, add on to his legacy that he's about to build."
It’s fair to say that the Colts and Broncos are happy with how things turned out. Midway through the season, each are 5-3 and each rely on their quarterbacks more than almost any other team. With nearly matching passer ratings in Week Nine — Manning at 105.8, Luck at 105.6 — and now both knotted at 2,404 passing yards on the season, the two QBs were in great form in two big conference victories on Sunday as we hit the backstretch of the season.
Luck dropped back on 49 of the Colts’ first 72 plays before calling three straight runs to milk the clock at game’s end. Manning, with a better run game in Denver, tossed 35 passes, on par with his season average of 36.5 per game. Both are doing exactly what’s asked of them.
But the good news is that this is not just a case of Luck and Manning putting up meaningless stats for bad or mediocre teams. There are some amazing things going on — even amid some strife — in Indianapolis and Denver.
You’ve got the power of #Chuckstrong thriving and inspiring in Indy. You have the Broncos’ defense (five sacks, interception, three plays against out of 72 that traveled more than 19 yards) stepping up with starting corner Tracy Porter dealing with some pre-seizure-like symptoms.
That said, it wouldn’t be happening like this without Luck and Manning handling themselves with such poise and focus.
Facing off against the Dolphins’ league-best third-down defense, Luck was 13-of-17 (with 11 first downs) for 204 yards and a TD in those situations. He averaged 15.7 yards per completion on third downs, converting from 12, 14, nine, 20, 10, 16 and 11 yards to go.
In 10 times facing third-and-seven or longer, Luck converted seven of them — none bigger than the 19-yard dart to LaVon Brazill on third and 16 with 3:59 left in the third quarter. Miss there, and the Colts are punting (down 17-13) back to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins from their own 31-yard line. Instead, they got the ball to midfield, and three plays later Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for the go-ahead, 36-yard score. Later in the game, Luck passed Cam Newton — by a yard — for the most passing yards in a game by a rookie, with 433.
Luck and Manning now are the only players in NFL history with four 300-yard games in their rookie seasons. Manning’s streak of five straight 300-yard games ended Sunday (he only had 291) and he had two unlikely interceptions — one in the endzone as the Broncos were going in to score and one from the endzone as they were backed up. Both picks, Manning looked a little rattled.
But all quarterbacks have these type of slipups; it’s what they do after mistakes that define them. We easily could have been talking about Luck’s near-INT on a horrible pass that Dolphins CB Sean Smith should have had, just like we could have talked about Manning’s picks as a tide turner.
Instead, Manning led the Broncos back after the second INT for a signature drive: five plays, 80 yards, touchdown. Manning worked out of the shotgun on five of the six snaps, which included a crucial pass-interference call that he helped draw, and completed all four of his passes for 50 yards. All but one of the yards on the drive came through the air and via Manning’s right arm.
"I've been there before," Manning said. "My dad (Archie) always talked about you've got to get back to level zero, erase the play from your mind — a good play or a bad play — and move on to the next one."
Some Colts fans crowed for Manning to stay. Some wanted Robert Griffin III over Luck. There were Broncos believers who couldn’t believe Tim Tebow wasn’t their QB anymore. Others wondered why the Colts would ditch Manning and expected damaged goods. As great as Luck was in college and as accomplished as Manning is in his career, there were doubters.
So far, they are answering nearly all of them. Now, back to that fun — Colts at Broncos, Jan. 5 — on a Saturday night in Denver in the wild-card round. It really, truly could happen.
My three worst coaching decisions of Sunday
Pretty self-explanatory. Here we go, in reverse order:
3. The Bucs giving LeGarrette Blount a carry, which he predictably fumbled (it was charged to QB Josh Freeman, wrongly), with 7:50 left. Doug Martin had TD runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards to that point. He had non-TD runs of 12, 13 and 10 yards. He was averaging 21.3 yards per carry in the second half at that point. So naturally, Mike Sullivan or Greg Schiano or some coaching Plato called for Blount to get it with a 35-24 lead. The Raiders, predictably, came down with the fumble and scored to make it a three-point deficit with the TD and two-point conversion. Not only did it kill any chance of the single-game rushing record being broken, it almost cost the team the victory. On Martin’s first carry after the Bucs finally got the ball back, he broke two tackles and ripped off 13 yards to help finish off the game. His final four carries before a late TD and runs to finish the clock went for a combined 158 yards. Enough said.
2. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin faking a field goal with 10:41 remaining on the Giants’ 3-yard line. Down 20-17 in this situation, you have two clear options on 4th-and-1: kick the field goal or line up and try to overpower the Giants. That’s it. Either decision is defendable there. You’ve gutted them all day (the backs were averaging more than five yards a clip at that point) and you want to go for the carotid artery? Fine, then power up and run it. Or you want to play for the tie on the road with your defense dominating? Totally acceptable decision to kick the field goal. But what you do not do is have the holder flip it to your kicker. It’s beneath Mike Tomlin, frankly, without coming off as snobbish — and he admitted as much. “I took a shot, and the guys backed my play like I knew that they would, and I appreciate that,” Tomlin said. “They overcome bad coaching sometimes, and that’s on me.” The Steelers did on subsequent drives what they should have done, it turns out — gash the Giants right up the soft belly — en route to a big road victory. Tomlin will get mad when he replays that fake in his head this week, but as he said, his guys backed him up.
1. Tops on the list (or bottom, depending on how you view it) is the one decision here that cost his team a victory. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur is on watch now, and he has to know it. It’s one thing being aggressive; new owners like coaches with gusto. But what Jimmy Haslam can’t defend — what no red-blooded non-Belichickian American can defend — is going for it from your own 28-yard line on fourth-and-2 with 3:53 remaining, down only one score with two timeouts left. Worse still, adding insult to offensiveness, the Browns called for a low-percentage pass downfield to noted heartbreaker Greg Little. The Browns had not completed a pass longer than 26 yards all game. It just made no coaching sense, hot seat or not. The Browns had controlled the action by keeping it ugly and chipping away with field goals. Why the sudden aggressiveness and change of strategy? It wreaked of panic. The Ravens had just gone on a 61-yard TD drive prior to the Browns’ turnover on downs, but in the previous eight Ravens possessions, they had moved the ball just 31 total yards. Punt and live to fight another day. It cost the ascending Browns a chance at victory. It might have cost Shurmur a chance to coach beyond this season.
Panthers turn defensive
Speaking of coaches who might not be back, Ron Rivera has done a pretty good job since his job has been put on the line. The Panthers outplayed the Bears in Week Eight in every facet but the final score, and they came back on the road again with a victory (in every facet, including the final score) over the Redskins.
The common denominator in both has been defense. Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott now have called two good games — save for the final drive against the Bears, in which they played back on their heels — against a Bears team that dropped 51 points on the Titans this week and against a Redskins team that led the NFL in rushing a few weeks ago.
Despite the season-ending injuries to MLB Jon Beason and CB Chris Gamble, the Panthers have tightened up defensively. Since moving to middle linebacker four games ago, rookie Luke Kuechly (15 tackles Sunday) has led the team in tackles each game. He helped contain the Redskins from getting too loose on the ground (no rushes longer than 18 yards) and limit the big plays from Robert Griffin III, both running and passing.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do was to make sure we could contain him and keep him in position,” Rivera said. “Another thing we tried to do was also handle the option. They did a nice job with that. They do some things that kind of throw you off balance.
“We didn’t want to give up a big run or a big play. For the most part, we were able to keep everything in front of us, as far as the run game is concerned. I thought our defensive backs played a really solid game.”
Will it make a difference, with the Panthers having fired their general manager, Marty Hurney? Maybe not. They’re still only 2-6, and Rivera and Co. might have to come close to a .500 record to save themselves. But the defensive turnaround has taken pressure off Cam Newton and the offense and (temporarily, at least) turned things for the positive.