A playoff atmosphere, turnovers, players losing their minds, devastating injuries, a wild finish.
Oh, and two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Sunday night's contest between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos was one of the rare big games that lived up to the hype.
It started slow: lots of runs, lots of punts and it looked like this game might settle into a low-scoring defensive affair.
A flurry of points later, and the Broncos took a 14-10 lead on a 12-yard TD pass to TE Julius Thomas. But Thomas' TD would mark the end of the Broncos' offensive success for quite some time. The next 2 quarters would belong to Pat McAfee and the Colts defense.
It all began after the Colts went 3-and-out on their ensuing drive: A great punt would set Manning and the Broncos' offense up at their own 6-yard line. Three plays later Robert Mathis would force a fumble as he collected his 11th (10.5) sack of the season. The fumble – which was recovered just out of bounds by LB Erik Walden – would result in a safety.
Down 14-12, the Colts' offense took over at their own 34. It would take them 7 plays later, FB Stanley Havili would take a short Luck dump-off 20 yards for the go ahead score, and the Colts would never look back.
The defense would hold the Broncos scoreless over their next 5 drives – from 8:52 left in the 2nd quarter until 0:42 left in the 3rd quarter – including three 3-and-outs.
While the Broncos were struggling to move the ball, the Colts were doing anything but. Some great play from Andrew Luck coupled with some aggressive – and at times creative – play calling from OC Pep Hamilton, saw the Colts turn a 14-12 deficit into a 33-14 lead.
And look, this needs to be the main point. The Colts will talk about running the ball and stopping the run. They'll talk about being a ball control offense. They'll talk about time of possession and turnovers.
Here's reality: when your quarterback is Andrew Luck, you need to stop concerning yourself with the opposing quarterback, and make the opposing team concerned about yours.
Andrew Luck isn't going to be an underdog in any "head-to-head" match-up. He's a top-5 QB in the league right now. He can run and throw with the best of them. He can extend plays with his legs like few others. He has the mind to run the hurry-up. He has the skill to run any scheme at any time. Stop limiting him with your idea of what wins football games and just let him win football games.
The final score – 39-33 – would be closer than the play on the field would suggest. Some conservative play calling and a killer Trent Richardson fumble deep in Colts' territory gave Peyton Manning just enough rope to lasso one of his "what the heck did I just see?" Comebacks. But in the end, his homecoming would end in a failed onside kick.
The Broncos fell to 6-1. They'll battle the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West Crown.
The Colts moved to 5-2. This win gave a lot of short-term answers: they can beat any team in the league. But it left them with countless long-term questions.
1) What is Reggie Wayne's status? Reggie was injured on an innocent-enough play in the 4th quarter. The turf monster got him, and he left the game with a knee sprain. Is it an ACL tear? If it is, he's likely done for the year. Is it one of the other ligaments in the knee? if it is, there's a remote chance he could be back at the end of the year. Maybe it's something else. Maybe the Colts dodged a huge bullet. But the Colts' doctors were upset. Reggie was crying. If they dodged a bullet, they didn't think so at the time.
So where do the Colts go from here? Well, more playing time for everyone behind Wayne on the depth chart, for starters. This means DHB and Hilton will grab the lion's share of the snaps. LaVon Brazill will also take a more-prominent role with the team. I'd also expect the team to re-sign Griff Whalen from the practice squad.
This just highlights what the team lost when they lost Dwayne Allen. Without Reggie, you could still create a well-balanced offense around Allen, Fleener, Hilton and DHB. Without Reggie and Allen – the two guys who can really make the tough, physical catches – you're left searching for someone to step up on 3rd downs.
My biggest hope is this: the loss of Wayne, while enormous, should not send Pagano and Hamilton into a shell. Don't pull away from Luck and put more on the running backs. Let Luck be magical. Not every team has a Reggie Wayne. Put the rest of the players – especially TY – in a position to step up. MAKE THEM take the reins. Getting conservative, playing it safe, is the best way to make the Wayne injury hurt the most.
2) Who is this team? The Colts have now beat the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers. They have done so with dominant stretches in each game. At some point in time, Chuck Pagano's Indianapolis Colts are going to have to stop playing to their competition. Don't struggle with the Raiders, lose to the Dolphins and the Chargers, and then beat the best of the best.
You're not the Little Engine Who Could, you're the Big Engine Who Is.
Believe in yourselves. Play with that tenacity and relentlessness every snap of EVERY GAME. That's what Champions do. They don't wait for the attention and spotlight to be on the other team. They don't want for some perceived slight. They go out and do it.
It's your time. You just laid claim to being one of the best teams in the NFL. Go get it.
3) Does Grigson make a move? If Wayne is out for the year, Trader Grigs will likely be searching for some WR help. Does he go after someone like Josh Gordon? Kenny Britt? Both have character issues. Britt plays for a divisional rival. I'm not sure he'll be interested in either. Maybe there's some bigger deal he can pull off. Bruce Arians wanna lend us Larry Fitzgerald?
4) Watch the backfield – Richardson had 14 carries for 37 yards and a fumble. Brown had 11 carries for 23 yards and 3 catches for 42 yards. Brown definitely played more in the second half. The team has been patient with Trent, but the time for excuses is over. He's a 3rd-overall pick. He's talented. He's had a month and now a bye week. The team has shown him through touches: the time for excuses is over. With Wayne out, the Colts are going to have to go with the more effective back. If that's Richardson, great. If that's Brown, so be it. Draft status and sunk costs don't matter anymore. You'll have to earn every snap you get.
5) Great Win – I will never love another player the way I love Peyton Manning. I love Andy, but it's different. That's not a bad thing. This sounds weird.
Here's the point. I cried when he took the field. I cried when he waved to the crowd.
And then the Broncos kicked off and I wanted the Colts to kick his butt. And, honestly, they did.
I don't think this game was an indictment of "The Decision, Part Irsay." I don't think it was an indictment of Manning – he didn't choke. I don't think it changes anything that was said or done last week.
But it is done. I wanted to say goodbye to Manning. I wasn't at the game, so I did that through writing, through seeing him, through going through this. And now it's over. I loved every moment of the journey with Peyton Manning, Bill Polian, and the 1998 – 2011 Colts.
That journey is over.
I couldn't be happier with the new captain of this ship.