INDIANAPOLIS – It's tough to know where to even begin writing about the Colts' epic win over the Denver Broncos.
Do I start with Peyton Manning taking off his Denver Broncos helmet, waving to the crowd and mouthing “thank you” in a heartfelt moment nearly three years in the making?
Do I start with Colts defensive end Robert Mathis taking Manning off his feet, forcing a fumble, a safety and a roar unlike any Manning has ever heard directed his way at Lucas Oil Stadium?
Do I start with Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne holding his right knee, a sight that turned stomachs of Colts fans and reminded everyone that no one is safe from the strain of the game?
Do I simply start with the wonder of the Colts, now 5-2 after their 39-33 win over the Broncos on Sunday night, establishing themselves as contenders of highest order, less than a week after a listless loss to San Diego? They go into their bye week with aches and pains, a two-game lead in the AFC South and endless possibilities for the rest of the season ahead.
I guess starting and staying with the current Colts is as good a place as any, since they were originally supporting actors in the Manning Homecoming and left the game something much bigger.
“I'm proud of the guys for just working, trusting the process and not getting caught up in the b.s., so to say, that surrounded (the week),” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. “We knew we had a great football team coming in here and not to let other things distract us or they would expose us.”
That was blunt of Luck, using the initials “b.s.” to characterize the buildup to the game. But there was some of that, with the talk about Manning and owner Jim Irsay's opinion of the Manning era and on and on.
The great part is how far above that mess this game rose.
It rose from the time the Colts showed former Colts Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James on the big screen before the video tribute to Manning. It rose during a raucous first half that included Luck throwing three touchdown passes, with fullback Stanley Havili forcing a huge turnover and later catching a TD pass. It rose with Darius Butler, tasked with smothering Wes Welker and making him disappear. It rose with Pat McAfee, punter with an edge, delivering a huge tackle that reverberated so much Ndamukong Suh tweeted about it.
For a time, it looked like the Colts had risen so far above the pregame noise, they would run away like Luck scrambling for the score that gave them a 33-14 lead in the third quarter. That lead stood at 36-17 with 12:59 left.
Then the game rose again, on Manning's willpower.
Eighty yards in 48 seconds, touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, followed by a fumble by Colts running back Trent Richardson. Another drive, more methodical with four short Manning passes, but with Knowshon Moreno punching in a touchdown and cutting the Colts lead to 36-30 with 8:44 left.
Everyone in the building thought the same thing: Manning was going to return, figuratively hug everyone and then break their hearts.
“I know after playing with him and being around him for 11 years, he's a man who can create magic out there,” Mathis said. “We had to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep playing.”
Toward the end, it was Erik Walden – an outside linebacker who has come under his share of criticism – who delivered two big plays. Walden reached Manning and tipped a pass that was picked off by Colts linebacker Pat Angerer and turned into an Adam Vinatieri field goal and a 39-30 lead with 5:57 left. On the next drive, another Manning-heavy passing drive, he helped force a fumble at the Colts' 2 to the Broncos' last best chance.
“We just had to withstand the storm,” Walden said.
Manning seemed to be thrown off his game after the sack/strip by Mathis, and Denver's offense stalled to open the second half. Yet everyone in the stadium knew he likely had one run left in him.
“Robert Mathis is a great player,” Manning said. “That was a great play by him and that was one, among others, a couple of plays where we gave them some points and some field position and ultimately it was too tough to overcome.”
The fact the Colts were able to find a way to beat Manning – adding the Broncos to the 49ers and Seahawks as impressive wins – leaves them in a place few people expected them to be. Manning finished with 386 yards passing and three touchdowns, huge numbers again, and numbers that most days would have been winning ones.
“I am kind of in some ways somewhat relieved this game is over,” Manning said. “Hopefully, we will have a chance to play these guys again.”
Colts coach Chuck Pagano revived a description he's used on more than one occasion, that these Colts are the “grittiest” team he's ever been around. He called the game a blood bath. That's a bit overdramatic. But not by much.
“I think we kept our focus and didn't let the outside spheres of influence creep into the locker room,” Luck said. “That's a testament to the guys. We knew we had a very good football team we were playing and we weren't going to let anything else distract us.”
The distractions ended once Colts-Broncos kicked off. The game demanded, and deserved, the nation's attention. So, now, do the Colts.