BY Tom James Tribune Star
The Washington Times-Herald
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Everybody expected a barnburner when the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos hooked up on national television Sunday night.
The 67,196 fans who crowded into Lucas Oil Stadium certainly didn’t go home unhappy. With quarterback Andrew Luck leading the way, the Indianapolis Colts outlasted the Denver Broncos 39-33 in Peyton Manning’s much-heralded and much-hyped return to Indianapolis.
Knocking off Denver from the ranks of the undefeated -- the second time this season that Indianapolis had defeated an unbeaten team (Seattle) -- allowed the Colts to go into a much- needed bye week with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC South.
Of Indianapolis’ five wins this year, three have come against the National Football League’s elite -- San Francisco, the Seahawks and the Broncos.
“We had a ton of guys suck it up and find a way [to win]. We knew what type of game it was going to be. [Denver] has an outstanding football team, as we know. Credit our guys for sucking it up and finding away to pull that thing out at the end and hold on,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said afterward.
“There was a lot of ebbs and flows in that game. A lot of big plays made on both sides. But we made just enough plays to get out with the win.”
Luck completed 21-of-38 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran four times for an additional 39 yards and a TD. Manning, meanwhile, was his usual self. He connected on 29-of-49 passes for 386 yards and three TDs while being sacked three times and throwing one interception.
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who had come into Sunday night’s game with 9.5 sacks, got to the Broncos quarterback twice. Inside linebacker Jerrell Freman and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois each shared a sack.
Mathis, with his 11.5 sacks this season, tied his single-season career high.
The Colts defense did a pretty good job of keeping Denver’s high-profile offense in check for most of the evening, especially on third down. The Broncos were good on only five of 16 third-down opportunities, well below their seasonal norm.
“I think [the defense] played pretty darn good. [Denver] was No. 1 in the NFL [at converting third down opportunities] at about 57 or 58 percent, which is unheard of. I think we held them 31 percent. It was incredible,” Pagano said.
“The defense was outstanding. [The Broncos] are going to make plays. We know [Manning] is going to make plays. They’ve made plays on everybody. It was tremendous.”
The Colts took a 26-14 lead into the locker room at halftime thanks to three touchdown pass from Luck, one each to wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey (11 yards), fullback Stanley Havili (20 yards) and tight end Coby Fleener (8 yards).
Indianapolis also got on the scoreboard on a 27-yard field goal by Adam Vinateri and safety, which occurred when outside linebacker Robert Mathis strip sacked Manning at the Denver nine-yard line and the ball went out of the left side of the end zone.
Outside linebacker Erik Walden tried to recover the ball for a touchdown but could not come up with it before he slid out of bounds.
Denver had taken a 14-10 lead with 11:56 left in the first half when Manning fired a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas in the back of the end zone. Thomas out reached Colts safety Antoine Bethea on the play.
The Broncos had taken a 7-0 lead with 8:16 remaining in the first quarter on a 17-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Eric Decker. The Manning to Decker combination had set up the TD with a 39-yard pass down the right sidelines.
Indianapolis added a 10-yard scramble for a touchdown by Luck with five minutes left in the third quarter and a 52-yard field goal by Vinatieri at the 12:59 mark of the fourth quarter.
Denver battled back on a 31-yard field goal by Prater with 0:42 left in the third quarter and a 31-yard touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at the 12:11 mark of the fourth quarter.
The throw to Thomas narrowed the margin to 36-23. A fumble by Colts running back Trent Richardson deep in Indianapolis territory set up the Broncos third score of the second half, a one-yard run by Knowshon Moreno with 8:44 left in the game to bring Denver to within 36-30.
Indianapolis lost wide receiver Reggie Wayne with just over seven minutes remaining in the game when he fell while attempting to catch a pass from Luck.
Wayne was wide open on the play for a first down and a possible touchdown but appeared to have sprained his right knee when his cleats got caught on the FieldTurf playing surface. He did not return.
After a punt, Walden hit Manning as he attempted to throw on first down and the pass was intercepted by inside linebacker Pat Angerer at the Broncos 20-yard line. Vinatieri booted his third field goal of the night, this one from 42-yards out with 5:57 left in the game, to push the Colts lead to 39-30.
Manning led the Broncos on a drive to the Indianapolis 3-yard line on throws to wide receiver Wes Welker. But running back Ronnie Hillman fumbled, which was recovered by safety Antoine Bethea. Walden forced the fumble on the play.
The Colts worked the clock on its next possession and punted the ball back to Denver with two minutes remaining in the game.
Prater’s 47-yard field goal with 0:12 left in the game brought Denver to within 39-33, but that was as close as the Broncos would get. Wide receiver LaVon Brazill recovered the ensuing onsides kick and the Colts ran out the clock.