8:30 PM ET, September 7, 2014
Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO
Peyton Manning's first game against his former team focused on his emotional return to Indianapolis and how he still was revered by the city he brought a Super Bowl title during his tenure with the Colts.
There isn't nearly as much positivity surrounding this matchup.
The Colts' owner who helped engineer a stirring tribute in October won't be allowed in the building Sunday night in Denver, and neither will one of Manning's trustworthy receiving targets as the Broncos begin their quest for a second straight AFC championship.
After Manning missed the entire 2011 season due to neck surgery, Jim Irsay made the difficult decision to release his star quarterback and select Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick as Manning's replacement.
Manning has thrived in Denver while leading the Broncos to back-to-back 13-win seasons. He set NFL records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards in 2013 before a 43-8 loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl.
Denver's first defeat last season came in Manning's return to Indianapolis, a 39-33 loss Oct. 20. The focus for Manning heading into this matchup, though, is how the Broncos will be able to overcome the loss of Wes Welker, who was suspended for the first four games after he violated the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy.
"A lot of people are going to have to step up and raise their play," Manning said. "When you don't have one of your best players, a guy who is one of your top contributors, I think it falls on more than just one person. That's our challenge."
Irsay won't be able to see how it turns out. He's been banned from contact with the Colts for the first six games and was fined $500,000 stemming from a DWI he received in March.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn't speak much about it and tried to keep the focus on Sunday's season opener.
"Business as usual," Pagano said. "Mr. Irsay is family. We have his back."
Manning also tried to deflect the negativity resulting from Welker's situation, discussing how players like leading receiver Demaryius Thomas, former Pittsburgh receiver Emmanuel Sanders, tight end Julius Thomas and a host of others can make up for the missing production in the passing game -- which also lost Eric Decker in free agency.
"I am tired of talking, and I am looking forward to playing some real football," Manning said. "We're playing a really good football team, a playoff team, and it's going to be a challenge."
Luck has led the Colts to consecutive 11-win seasons since taking Manning's spot under center and helped them overcome a 28-point deficit in the third quarter for a 45-44 win over Kansas City in the wild-card round.
Indianapolis fell to New England the following week, and has its sights set on a deeper run this season. Knocking off the defending conference champs would be a good start.
"They've got a lot of players who can play football, but I think we've got a lot of guys who can play football as well," Luck said. "It should be a great test and a great matchup."
As for his comparisons to Manning? Luck hasn't even listened.
"To be honest, even since Day 1 here, it hasn't been an issue. I never came in saying, 'Oh, I have to replace a legend, one of the greatest of all-time,'" Luck said. "Professional sports people, they come and they go. Someone's going to replace me eventually, hopefully later rather than sooner."
Both teams have some replacements heading into this season.
Montee Ball will be the top running back for the Broncos after sharing duties with the departed Knowshon Moreno during his rookie season. Denver's defense, which allowed 24.9 points per game last season, got an upgrade with lineman DeMarcus Ware and defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward.
The Colts brought in ex-Giant Hakeem Nicks to add depth to their receiving corps. That group already boasts T.Y. Hilton, who is entering his third season after catching 82 passes for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns despite starting only 10 games.
Indianapolis also will have veteran receiver Reggie Wayne back after he tore his ACL in last season's matchup with Denver.
The Colts traded a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson last September, but he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in 14 games and eight starts while struggling to pick up the offense.
With an entire offseason in Indianapolis under his belt, Richardson will combine with Ahmad Bradshaw to form what Pagano believes is a solid tandem.
"I have great confidence in those two and whoever we line up that when we hand the ball off, we're going to be able to generate a run game," Pagano said. "We have to be able to do that."
No matter who is on the field -- or off of it -- for either squad, Manning is looking forward to getting started.
"Season opener, it doesn't get much bigger than this except for the postseason," Manning said. "I've always said that opening day is a playoff-type atmosphere."
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|Avg Points Allowed||31.0||24.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||IND|
|Rush Yds Allowed||IND|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Indianapolis leads 10-3|
|Oct 20, 2013||IND 39, DEN 33|
|Sep 26, 2010||IND 27, @DEN 13|
|Dec 13, 2009||IND 28, DEN 16|
|Sep 30, 2007||IND 38, DEN 20|
|Oct 29, 2006||IND 34, @DEN 31|
|Jan 9, 2005||IND 49, DEN 24|
|Jan 2, 2005||IND 14, @DEN 33|
|Jan 4, 2004||IND 41, DEN 10|
|Dec 21, 2003||IND 17, DEN 31|
|Nov 24, 2002||IND 23, @DEN 20|
|Jan 6, 2002||IND 29, DEN 10|
Peyton Manning utilized a short passing attack, as 23 of his 36 passes (64 percent) traveled five yards or less downfield. He was 16-of-23 on such throws, including 4-for-4 and two touchdowns when targeting Julius Thomas. Last season, Manning led the NFL in short pass attempts (373) and completions (283). He also had 29 Pass TD on such throws last season, 13 more than anyone else.
The Broncos thwarted the Colts' comeback attempt in the fourth quarter thanks to some stellar pass defense. They intercepted or defended seven passes by players in coverage in the final 10 minutes of the game, more than any other team since 2006 (when ESPN began video tracking).[+]
From Elias: Peyton Manning is 27-6 since joining the Broncos. His .818 win percentage is the highest among starting quarterbacks who played for another team(s) after winning a Super Bowl. The legendary Joe Montana ranks a distant second with a .680 win percentage as a member of the Chiefs.[+]
Best Win Pct by Starting QB - After Leaving Team He Won Super Bowl With
ESPN Stats & Information