The Broncos had a stadium full of rollicking fans, a 13-game home winning streak and a league-leading defense that had surrendered only two touchdowns this season.
The Indianapolis Colts had Peyton Manning.
Talk about a mismatch.
Manning, unflappable as ever Sunday, threw three touchdown passes before finishing off his spectacular game with a signature two-minute drill, calmly driving 49 yards to set up the winning field goal in a 34-31 victory at Invesco Field.
It was a performance so masterful, so sub-zero cool, that even the opposition couldn’t help but marvel.
Asked to rank Manning among the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterbacks, Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said, “I won’t evaluate that until he’s done with his career, but I’ll guarantee you one thing: He amazes me.”
In one of those rare games that lives up to the hype, the undefeated Colts picked apart a defense that had given up six, seven, three, three and seven points in the previous five games, all Denver victories. In fact, Indianapolis (7-0) exceeded that point total in the second half alone, scoring 28.
“You can’t overemphasize how good the quarterback is,” Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. “People try to do different things against him, and he just follows his reads. We’ve been running the same plays for seven years, and Peyton just always knows where the ball is going.”
In this game, everyone knew where the ball was going -- away from All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, who was blanketing receiver Marvin Harrison. So time after time, Manning fired passes to Reggie Wayne, who finished with 10 catches for 138 yards and three touchdowns. Manning and Wayne made right cornerback Darrent Williams, normally a very good player, look like a scrub.
But if Williams was the goat, he wasn’t alone. The Colts’ run defense offered minimal resistance, giving up 227 yards rushing, the Broncos averaging 6.3 yards per carry. It was yet another reminder there really isn’t an AFC playoff contender that boasts the complete package -- the Colts, Broncos, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers all have their weak spots.
“This is definitely a game where our run defense could have lost it for us,” Dungy said.
The Broncos (5-2) certainly put up a good fight. Mike Bell rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns in 15 carries, and quarterback Jake Plummer largely avoided the mistakes that sometimes plague his play. He did have a fumble that the Colts recovered to set up a short touchdown drive.
Officially, the player who clinched the victory for Indianapolis was kicker Adam Vinatieri, who made a 37-yard field goal with two seconds to play. It was a garden-variety pressure kick for a player known as Mr. Clutch and whose resume includes two Super Bowl-winning kicks for the Patriots.
“We have a little joke about Vinatieri; you can’t really repeat it in the media,” Manning said, cracking a smile. “Something along the lines about ... how big of guts he’s got.”
Before Manning took the field for the final drive, with the score tied at 31-31 and 1:49 on the clock, Dungy reminded his quarterback: “You don’t have to get very far for Vinatieri.”
With that in mind, Manning chipped away at the Broncos underneath instead of trying for big chunks of yardage with deep passes. He inched into Denver territory, ran time off the clock, and then stepped aside for the best foot in the business.
“That’s what we expect,” Dungy said of Vinatieri’s performance. “You hate to ho-hum it, but I don’t think anybody on our sideline thought he was going to miss them.”
Vinatieri will be in the spotlight this week as the Colts prepare to play at New England on Sunday. He said he’ll treat it like just another game, yet conceded, “I had some fun years there, so it will be emotional.”
Few players were as emotional Sunday as the normally even-keeled Manning, who completed 32 of 39 passes for 345 yards. At various points, he vigorously pumped his fist, yelled at the top of his lungs, even high-fived Dungy as the two passed at their news conference.
Manning said it was the brutal hit he absorbed a week before, a violent high-low takedown by Washington’s Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter, that reminded him to relish every small triumph. Daniels was fined $5,000 for that hit, which jarred loose Manning’s helmet and bent him backward.
Manning said a collision like that “reinforces your priorities. You see quarterbacks going down like flies around here, and you’ve got to enjoy it while you’re out here. If you want to celebrate a little bit, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
But, he said, he tried not to celebrate too much, “tried to keep it in Manning mode.”
Which he did. Manning mode all the way. And that, for the Broncos, was the problem.