Is there pressure on Luck, the second-year quarterback drafted to lead the Indianapolis Colts offense for the next decade or so? Of course. There has to be a little extra on Luck to perform in this specific game and reinforce owner Jim Irsay's decision to say goodbye to Manning and rebuild with Luck.
But Luck is still so early in his career – a fact we sometimes forget – that this game doesn't necessarily bring loads of pressure that wouldn't have been in the 49ers or Seahawks game.
For Manning, this game has so much weight even the greatest quarterback of all time will feel a little bogged down.
Manning didn't have much to anything to say about his return to Indy after his Denver Broncos beat the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, but he'll be forced into addressing the issue to some degree this week. Chances are he'll make respectful comments about the Colts and try to narrow it down to the Broncos offense vs. Colts defense battle. That's what he's always done, no matter whether facing the New England Patriots or the Jaguars.
But even Manning has never been through a game quite like this one.
Even a seemingly close comparison, such as LeBron James returning to play in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat, is nowhere near this situation. Cleveland fans were angry at James, who willingly chose to move to another team.
Manning gave a tearful farewell news conference when he was released by the Colts after missing the entire 2011 season. He didn't want to leave. Colts fans didn't want him to leave. Both were victims of circumstance; namely, his neck issues that had put his career in jeopardy and the Colts 2-14 season that had given them the chance to draft Luck for the future with the No.1 pick.
“He spent 14 years there, he poured everything he had into it,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “It's going to be emotional when he goes back. There will be emotion from fans, emotion from him. He's going to try to hide it as best as he can, but it's going to be emotional.”
Cris Collinsworth, who joins Dungy and Rodney Harrison in the NBC Sunday Night Football analysts booth for the game, believes the Broncos might be best to defer if they win the toss. He said Manning may need time to settle his emotions after an expected pregame tribute by the Colts for his time with the team.
I still have my doubts about Manning participating in any sort of tribute. It's just not like him to agree to a distraction like that before a game. The Los Angeles Times reports that his old teammates Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James will be on hand. That is overkill, something better left for a salute when Manning is retired. I can't imagine Manning agreeing to participate in this sideshow.
So let's assume Manning won't be soaking in a pregame salute. He'll still have enormous pressure on his shoulders.
The Broncos are unbeaten and considered to be the best team in the NFL. Manning has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal that might top even his finest group with the Colts. He's putting up an unreal number of points, yards and touchdowns.
As great a representative of the Colts as Manning was during his time as the face of the franchise, he's going to want to remind people – and Irsay in particular – that he's still in his prime. He's going to want to put up big-time stats on the Colts.
Yet it's going to be odd for him to walk into a place with such fond memories and have the fans, or at least the portion of fans who didn't sell their tickets for huge profits to Broncos backers, rooting against him. Manning was beloved in Indy. It's almost certain the number of No. 18 jerseys (orange or blue) in the stands Sunday will attest to that. But he's not on the Colts anymore. When push comes to shove, the cheers are going to rise for Robert Mathis and the Colts defense when Manning sets up for the shotgun snap.
Some of Manning's worst games have come under the most pressure, with a chunk of those against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
A number of those lesser Manning performances came during the playoffs.
This game, on national television, in prime time, with swirling emotions everywhere, could be as close to a playoff game as it gets. You can't quantify pressure, but all things considered, Manning will be carrying the bulk of the load.