The Colts are headed to the AFC title game.
With their defense turning in a sparkling performance, and with quarterback Andrew Luck outplaying first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the Colts pulled away to a 24-13 divisional-playoff victory in Denver on Sunday afternoon.
With the win, the Colts advance to play at New England next Sunday. The Colts are seeking their first Super Bowl berth since 2009, when Manning was their quarterback.
Luck wasn’t perfect in victory — he threw two ill-advised picks — but he also tossed a pair of TD passes, and he connected on 27-of-43 throws for 265 yards.
The star of the show, however, was the Colts’ defense, which surrendered a touchdown on Denver’s first drive and slammed the door thereafter on Manning and Co.
The Broncos, meanwhile, enter the offseason with major uncertainty swirling about them. Manning’s third season with the club ended with a subpar performance from the legendary 38-year-old quarterback, who completed just 26-of-46 passes for 211 yards with one touchdown and a lost fumble. His passes lacked their usual accuracy, and his longer passes were uncommonly heave-like. Manning’s receiving corps also had a tough day, with top target Demaryius Thomas (five catches, 59 yards) having an especially disappointing contest.
Early on, it appeared the Broncos had the class edge on the Colts. Aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty, the Broncos marched seven plays and 68 yards to take a 7-0 lead five minutes into the contest, with Manning’s one-yard TD pass to Thomas putting Denver on the board.
Thereafter, though, the Colts started to find their way. They evened the score at seven on Daniel Herron’s six-yard TD run early in the second quarter, then took the lead on Luck’s three-yard TD pass to tight end Dwayne Allen midway through the period. Ultimately, the Colts would never relinquish their lead, and they twice held 11-point edges, the first coming when Luck hit Hakeem Nicks for a 15-yard score about six minutes into third quarter.
The Broncos would get as close as 21-13 with 13:50 left, but the clubs then traded three-and-outs, and the Colts would put it away with clock-eating 13-play, 54-yard drive ending in Adam Vinatieri’s 30-yard field-goal with 4:06 left.
The question now is where the Broncos go from here, with the future of Manning the dominant storyline. Head coach John Fox’s status will also bear watching, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase could draw head-coaching consideration elsewhere.
The 2014 Broncos were built to be serious Super Bowl contenders, but when the running began in the divisional round, they emptied out.
Now, the focus turns to who’s back in 2015.