There will always be games when a player returns, with his new team and wearing a new set of NFL colors, to the city where he once worked. Happens all the time.
And then there is this week. When the former face of a franchise, a future Hall of Famer, returns, not as a legend in the final days of his career, but as a 37-year-old vying for the league's MVP award, having the season of his life with a Super Bowl hopeful. Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis as the 6-0 Denver Broncos will meet the 4-2 Indianapolis Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium. ESPN.com Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Colts team reporter Mike Wells break down this week's game.
Legwold: Mike, let's get right to it. Manning. Colts. Indianapolis. There isn't much precedent in the league's history for a player of Manning's stature returning, playing as well as ever, to meet his former team. How has it played there? And just how many of the current Colts were even teammates with Manning?
Wells: As much as I hate to admit it, safety Antoine Bethea, a former Manning teammate, said it best inside the locker room in San Diego on Monday, “We see players come and go all the time,” and that the media will make a big deal about it. Bethea was the first Colt not named Jim Irsay to talk about Manning's return. Coach Chuck Pagano didn't even want to talk about it on Tuesday. There are only 11 players still on the roster from when Manning played here. The Colts respect Manning, but they also want to prove they've moved on and they can win without him.
You've been around Manning for more than a season now. Do you get a sense that he'll be more pumped than what he is every weekend?
Legwold: Manning has already been on the media merry-go-round earlier this season when he faced his brother Eli for the third and likely final time in his career. He didn't like it that much and said as much. I think he certainly will want to show, at least in some way, he appreciated his time with the Colts and that he enjoyed the successes there. In the end he will try to play it straight through the week. That said, when Manning arrived in Denver, those close to him said he was initially surprised the Colts actually released him, even though it made sense financially and for the overall direction of the franchise due to the uncertainty surrounding how he would recover from his neck surgeries. As one of the most competitive people in a league full of competitive people, there is likely a part of him that wants to show what he has left for a team that considers itself to be a Super Bowl contender.
To that end, Andrew Luck has consistently seemed comfortable in his role as the team's leader in the post-Manning era, how do you think he will handle all of this? And will he have some added adrenaline?
Wells: Luck hasn't given any indication that he'll prepare for or approach the game any different. It obviously wasn't the same magnitude as what Sunday will be, but the second-year quarterback was put under the spotlight earlier this season when he returned to the Bay Area, where he starred at Stanford, to take on his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers. Luck played within himself -– 17-of-26 for 159 yards --and I expect him to do the same thing this weekend. Don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tries to get Luck going early in front of the sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. But don't expect to see Luck throwing the ball 45 times unless the Colts dig themselves into a big hole.
I was little surprised Broncos coach John Fox took exception to Colts owner Jim Irsay's comments to USA Today. Is that normal for Fox to respond the way he did?
Legwold: From the Broncos' perspective, some in the organization see it as Irsay gladly reaping the benefits of the Colts' success with Manning at quarterback, including a new stadium that allowed the city to host a Super Bowl, and now acting as if one Super Bowl win in Manning's tenure sticks in his craw. Fox simply came to the defense of his player, something he does when he sees it as necessary and something that only strengthens his standing in the Broncos' locker room. Manning almost always takes the high road publicly in such things, as he did this week, but there isn't much question he has one of the game's longest memories when it comes to what's been written or said.
Much of what is, or isn't said, this week won't matter much once the ball is snapped, but on the field what do you think the Colts' defensive plan will be against the Broncos' offense?
Wells: Don't expect the Colts to sit back in a Cover 2 the way Jacksonville did. That's not defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's style. The cornerbacks will press up on the receivers and they'll continue to gamble to try to make a play. That may not be the right approach to take because as you know, Manning makes teams pay for their mistakes. It'll be interesting to see if Robert Mathis, another one of Manning's former teammates, is able to get off the edge and get to Manning. Mathis is tied for the league lead in sacks with 9.5. The area of concern for the Colts is at linebacker. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the team's leading tackler, had to sit out the second half of last week's game at San Diego with a concussion.
Speaking of linebackers, the Broncos will have Von Miller for the first time this season this weekend. Do you expect him to be rusty after being suspended for the first six games?
Legwold: On the field that may be the biggest question of the week. Miller, under a provision added to the league's collective bargaining agreement in 2006, could attend team meetings during his suspension and work out at the team's strength and conditioning center. He could not practice or attend games. So, all of the on-field work he has done with the strength coaches has been a solo affair. The question will be if he stayed up to speed in the team's defensive playbook – he says he has. He is an impact rusher, a "game-wrecker" as Pagano likes to say (Pagano is a Boulder, Colo., native). Miller's adrenaline will be off the charts, especially early in the game. It wouldn't be a shock for the Colts to test him with a little misdirection early to see if he's up to the challenge. But Miller should have an impact in the pass rush, especially if his conditioning is as good as he says it is.
A lot of folks here are interested to know how Pagano has done healthwise this season following last year's cancer treatments. How important is he to the team's success?
Wells: The fact that Pagano was able to overcome cancer to be back on the sideline coaching at the end of last season is a remarkable story in itself. The players like how he motivates them and is constantly positive. I don't think there are many head coaches in the NFL who would think about heading over to Lowe's (he ended up having somebody else go for him) to purchase mousetraps as a reminder for his team not to overlook winless Jacksonville after beating San Francisco the week before.
So much is said about Denver's passing game, but what about its rushing game? Can it be effective the same way San Diego was last week?
Legwold: Much of the Chargers' offense comes from first-year head coach Mike McCoy -- the Broncos' offensive coordinator last season. Denver certainly noted the success the Chargers had running at the heart of the Colts' defense, especially with a zone run scheme. For all of the talk about how much the Broncos throw the ball, and they throw it with purpose in any down-and-distance situation, they are still fifth in the league in carries with 180, or 30 per game. With Manning at quarterback, with this coaching staff, they will always be pass-first, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase's mentor in the league was Mike Martz. And Martz's high-flying offenses always had a major run-game component.
With the Colts' run game, and with Luck 20th among the league's starters in pass attempts, is there an element of having a system in place that doesn't require Luck to have to do everything for the team to win?
Wells: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held that same role at Stanford with Luck, is big into being a run-first team. The Colts have stuck to that mindset through the first six games. But it'll be interesting if Hamilton loosens things on the offense this season after the Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards last week at San Diego. Luck gives the Colts the best chance to win. They'll need Luck's arm to beat the Broncos because Manning & Co. are going to put points -- a lot of them -- on the board this week. It's hard to imagine the Colts will be able to run the ball well enough to keep Manning on the sidelines looking antsy to get back on the field.
Passing the ball is probably a good idea since the Broncos are last in the league in defending the pass (338 yards a game). Why have the Broncos defended the pass so poorly?
Legwold: Some of it, especially over the first four games of the season, was a good bit of stat padding late in blowouts by opposing offenses. But there is an element that is a personnel issue as well. Elvis Dumervil left in free agency after the fax fiasco in the offseason, Miller was suspended and Champ Bailey missed five games after injuring his left foot in the preseason. That's 17 Pro Bowl appearances from guys who were in the lineup last season when the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks. And they have had some sacks -- 17 thus far -- but those plays have often been clustered near the end of games with the Broncos having built 20-point leads. They haven't consistently pressured opposing passers this season and as a result some of those quarterbacks are finding some openings against a steady diet of man coverage in the Broncos' secondary. They know they have to get to Luck this weekend or he will pick away at them.
That should do it, enjoy the game.