The Indianapolis Colts advanced to the AFC Championship game Sunday, defeating the oddly listless Denver Broncos, 24-13, in Denver. Peyton Manning and the Broncos' typically high-powered offense couldn't do much with their second-half opportunities. Manning finished with just 211 yards passing at 4.3 yards per attempt.
Andrew Luck had two touchdown passes, and the Colts had a third touchdown on a 6-yard Daniel Herron run in the second quarter. Indianapolis' defense was the bigger story, however. Denver managed just 289 total yards of offense on the day at 4.3 yards per play. The Broncos went just 4 of 16 on third-down conversions.
The Broncos' last chance to stay in the game was a failed fourth-and-8 conversion with 2:50 remaining in the game, down 24-13. Broncos head coach John Fox challenged the spot after C.J. Anderson got stuffed short of the line on a reception, but the effort was futile. The Broncos were able to get the ball back under the two-minute mark, but a two-score deficit would have been too much to overcome even if the Broncos had managed to score.
The Colts will play the New England Patriots next week for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Broncos head into the offseason with several lingering questions, but none more important than the status of their veteran quarterback.
Three things we learned:
1) Peyton Manning is ... off
Manning spent much of the game unleashing a steady succession of overthrows. At one point in the first half, he went 0 of 7 passing, which was the worst postseason stretch of his career. He just seemed ... off. And looking at the way he has played the last few weeks -- only one passer rating above 85 in his last six games -- it's not much of a surprise he struggled.
The Colts' defense wasn't outstanding, and the C.J. Anderson gave Manning good support in the running game. Manning's mistakes were largely his own. Is he too old? Too tired? Should he retire? Fair or not, Manning will be hearing those questions a lot over the coming months.
2) If only Manning had this support last season
It was sad to see Manning struggle, because Broncos appear to be a much more complete team than the one that went to the Super Bowl last season. The defense improved significantly, perhaps most notably in the secondary where Aqib Talib and Chris Harris were solid in coverage Sunday. At running back, C.J. Anderson has been a revelation. He ran for 80 yards against the Colts, and made a spectacular play on a fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter:
Manning was arguably the Broncos' weakest link Sunday, one year after he was easily their strongest. A 2013 Manning paired with the 2014 Broncos could have been sensational.
3) Luck vs. Brady is going to be a lot of fun
Luck wasn't spectacular Sunday -- certainly not like he was against the Cincinnati Bengals -- but he was pretty good, and the Colts made him throw a lot. Luck had 43 pass attempts on the day, completing 27 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and two arm-punt interceptions. He fell just short of the Tom Brady's 50 pass attempts for the Patriots on Saturday.
The Colts and the Pats both have running games that are capable of disappearing at a moment's notice. Next Sunday could feature one of the best quarterback duels we've seen this season.