Peyton Manning's, Broncos' future unclear after 24-13 loss to Colts

The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Denver Broncos, 24-13, in an AFC divisional game

Another season is in the books for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

But is it the final chapter of his storied NFL career?

The 38-year-old Manning braced himself on the podium Sunday night, tightened his lips into a grimace, and let the question hang in the air for a moment. Even though he recently said he wanted to come back for another season, he couldn't definitively say he still feels that way, not in the lingering aftermath of a 24-13 loss to his old team, the Indianapolis Colts, in a divisional playoff game.

Is he definitely coming back for an 18th season?

"I guess I just can't give that simple answer," he said, unmistakable dejection in his voice. "I'm processing it. I can't say that. I could not say that."

(That was in stark contrast to what Manning told reporters on Christmas Eve: "I certainly plan on being back if the Broncos will have me.")

Also unclear is whether the Broncos will bring back Coach John Fox, especially after a third consecutive soul-crushing season ender. Three seasons ago, it was the shocking, one-and-done ouster by Baltimore. Then the blowout loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl. And Sunday, Manning was outplayed by Andrew Luck, his superstar successor in Indianapolis who's off to the first AFC championship game of his three-year career. The Colts will play at New England on Sunday.

Moving on gives Luck the opportunity to wash away the taste of bitter disappointment from last season's divisional loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., a game in which four of his passes were intercepted.

This season, the Colts lost at home to the Patriots, 42-20, in Week 11, a game in which little-known New England back Jonas Gray rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns.

Sunday, the Colts quarterback wasn't ready to look too far ahead. He wanted to appreciate the moment.

"I think wins are sweet no matter what," said Luck, whose team was a nine-point underdog Sunday. "I don't get caught up in the story lines 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.

"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."

The Broncos, meanwhile, are left to patch their wounds and consider what the future holds.

"There's only one happy camper at the end of this," said Fox, whose team finished the regular season 12-4 and won the AFC West. "So at some point it's a train wreck for everybody but one. In that [locker] room, I didn't beat them up on a miserable, awful season.

"Did it end like we wanted? No. Did we reach the goal we wanted? No. But there were a lot of great efforts and a lot of great performances by a lot of people in that locker room."

This blustery night belonged to Luck, who silenced the orange-clad, bundled-up crowd at Sports Authority Field with a trio of touchdown drives. His performance wasn't a masterpiece — he threw for 265 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions — but the game never felt like it was out of his control. It was more a grinder than a gem.

The Broncos, meanwhile, hit a plateau after scoring a touchdown on their opening drive and could never recapture that spark.

The Colts had a strip-sack of Manning in the second quarter, a fumble that set up an Indianapolis touchdown drive, then saw him miss on a series of deep throws. At one point, after his sixth consecutive incomplete pass, Manning trudged off the field to a smattering of boos. The Broncos converted four of 16 third downs, not a recipe for winning football, and Manning averaged 4.2 yards per pass attempt — two yards fewer than Luck's average.

"I didn't play well enough," said Manning, who completed 26 of 46 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. "I give [the Colts] a lot of credit. Their defense played well, and their defense forced us into some bad execution. But I thought we had some chances as well, and I thought I could have played better."

That's been a theme for Manning in the second half of the season, a season that began with such promise, seeing as in October he set the NFL record for career touchdown passes. He failed to throw a touchdown pass in two of his final four regular-season games, however, and had one 300-yard passing performance in the last six weeks of the season.

"I played well at times, but not as consistently," he said.

There have been rumors that he's been coping with some type of undisclosed injury. But Manning said other than a thigh bruise he suffered in a Week 14 victory over San Diego, he has felt fine. Asked whether age has finally caught up to him, he said: "I'm not smart enough to be able to answer every single question about reasons for things. But I think I've always taken a pretty accurate look and fair evaluation of myself. I think I've been as honest with myself as anybody else is, and probably as critical of myself as anybody else is."

The game marked the third meeting between Manning and Luck. In a highly anticipated showdown last season, Manning's first return to Indianapolis, his Broncos lost, 39-33. But Denver beat the visiting Colts, 31-24, in the first Sunday night game this season.

"We knew what we were getting into when [Luck] first came here in the first game," Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said, adding, "He made a couple big plays on us and now we just have to think about how we can get better and move on."

Whether Manning will be around for that next chapter, that's for another day.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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