When: 4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High TV: CBS
For many, well, for most everybody really, it will be difficult to get past the quarterbacks in this one. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will face his former team and the player the Indianapolis Colts selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Andrew Luck, just after the Colts released Manning in early 2012 -- all with a slot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
In some ways there is a bit of old-news flavor to this divisional-round game given it will actually be the third time Manning will face his former team after a meeting in Indianapolis in 2013 (a Colts win) and this year's regular-season opener in Denver (a Broncos win).
But this is the first postseason dance. The Broncos (12-4) are trying to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl and the Colts (12-5) are trying to keep the momentum they earned with Sunday's wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the quarterbacks as well as other issues in the playoff matchup.
Legwold: Mike, any concern there, even with Luck's heroics, the offense has become too one-dimensional? And how much could they adjust in a week?
Wells: The Colts are one-dimensional on offense. They didn't become one-dimensional on purpose. The goal was for them to have a balanced offense. That thought vanished when Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season in the middle of November because of a fractured fibula. Trent Richardson has been so much of a disappointment that he's now the No. 3 running back for the Colts. The Colts finished 22nd in the league in the rushing department during the regular season. The only hope the Colts have in the running department is with Daniel "Boom" Herron. He rushed 12 times for 56 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati on Sunday. Besides that, Luck's arm will have to carry the offense. The Colts are fine with that because he did lead the NFL in touchdown passes during the regular season and was third in passing yards.
Running back CJ Anderson only carried the ball four times in the Week 1 matchup with the Colts. He had back-to-back games of 167 and 168 yards rushing during the regular season. How much has he helped take the load off of Manning and the passing game?
Legwold: Since an inexplicable loss Nov. 16 in St. Louis, when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times, they have tried to balance things out the offense. They have run the ball at least 29 times in five of the last six games to close out the regular season. The exception was a 19-carry effort in the loss in Cincinnati. So, when they've pounded the ball down the stretch they've won games. They showed a little more of their pass-first chops in the regular-season finale against Oakland, but Anderson is the No. 1 option in the run game right now. Anderson's roster spot was a rather large question mark when he arrived to offseason workouts too heavy and looked sluggish, but he showed up to training camp far leaner. And when Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman were both injured Anderson got his chance. He has shown vision and power when he runs the ball as well as a good awareness in pass protection to go with his work as a receiver. They've only shown it in glimpses thus far, but if the Broncos can find a way to smooth out the rough spots as they transition from run to pass during games, the offense could certainly be built to work in the grind-it-out environment of the postseason.
Wes Welker didn't play in the season opener for the Broncos, Demaryius Thomas lined up in the slot because of that without a lot of success so it was tight end Julius Thomas who finished with three touchdown catches -- all in the second quarter. What do you think the Colts expect from the Broncos' offense this time around?
Wells: The Colts know Manning will be Manning. The difference for them is Anderson. The last thing the Colts can afford is for Anderson to get going early because it plays right into the hands of Manning with the play-action pass game. Manning is lethal even when he doesn't have a running game behind him. He's going to be almost impossible to stop if Anderson has the Colts on their heels in the running game. I asked former Broncos safety Mike Adams what's the biggest difference with Denver since their Week 1 matchup and the first player he mentioned was Anderson. The Colts have to find a way to put pressure on Manning when he drops back in the pocket. Good luck with that. Manning was only sacked 17 times during regular season. The Colts were 25th in the league in sacks.
The Broncos' defense sacked Luck three times and picked him off twice back in September. What is the key from Denver's defensive perspective in slowing down Luck and the offense?
Legwold: If there is one play in this past Sunday's game that showed the task at hand for the Broncos it was Luck's touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief with Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap wrapped around Luck's leg as he made the throw. The Broncos see Luck as a power runner in a pocket passer's body, a combination that is difficult to handle. It's not that they have to just get to Luck, but they have to get him down when they get there. Luck has shown himself to be particularly adept at escaping four-man rush packages that close in on him, especially if the two edge-rushers get too wide or rush too deep into the backfield in their efforts to get to him. The Broncos will try to keep him contained, allow a secondary with three Pro Bowl players to cover and force Luck to stay put, hold the ball and work through his progressions. Down and distance will also be important. If the Broncos don't allow the Colts much production on first down, they'll get the option of using some of their specialty packages, with five, six or seven defensive backs. Opposing quarterbacks have had some trouble moving the ball against those looks.
In the end, we all know about the quarterbacks, we all will be watching them perform Sunday, but if you had to name one or two other players who have to have an elite player type of day for the Colts to win, who would it be?
Wells: Linebacker Jerrell Freeman. As you recall, Jeff, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas dominated the Colts on that Sunday night in early September. Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts tried a number of different players on Thomas, even safety LaRon Landry. None of those players could slow him down. You can expect Freeman to spend a lot of time defending Thomas. Freeman is coming off his best game of the season when he had a season-high 15 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He's the only Colts linebacker athletic enough to defend Thomas.
Still, it wouldn't be right if we previewed this game and I didn't ask a Manning question because of the obvious connection with the Indianapolis. Manning said earlier this season that he'll be back as long as the Broncos will have him. You've been around him for the past three seasons, how many years do you think he has in that arm?
Legwold: Most folks look at Manning's right arm when they discuss his future, how he throws, the velocity on the ball, his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field. But in terms of how many seasons he will play beyond this one, I believe in many ways he will make the call on when to call it a career, by how his legs are doing. He often talks about the “ability to move around and protect yourself,'' as being an important part of how he feels. And it is worth noting -- and I see him in practice every day -- he still throws the ball much the same as when he arrived in Denver in 2012 and that all of his injuries, at least the ones serious enough to show up on the injury reports, have been leg injuries. Last year he injured, and re-injured, both ankles and played with pain down the stretch. And this year he suffered a right thigh injury in a December win over the San Diego Chargers that affected his ability to plant and throw down the stretch. In the end, Manning has already said he plans to come back next season. His contract runs through 2016 and there are some in the Broncos organization who could see him finishing out the deal, but it will depend on Manning's health overall, including his ability to move in the pocket, to slide and to keep himself out of harm's way.