INDIANAPOLIS – Here are five storylines to watch for Sunday night's game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.
1. The clock-management game: Stick with the style that got you four wins or put the ball in your franchise quarterback’s hands and have him test the NFL’s worst pass defense team in the league? That’s the quandary Colt offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton finds himself in against the Broncos. Hamilton's sticking with the run-first mentality. That’s the right approach to take because the Colts are sixth in the league in rushing and a ball-controlled offense keeps Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on the sideline with his helmet on, arms crossed and antsy to get his offense back on the field. But the Colts have to be effective in order to make it work, and they have to do it against a Denver team that’s only giving up 69.8 yards a game. The Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards and only had the ball for 21 minutes against San Diego last week. The Broncos are giving up a league-worst 338 yards in the air. The Colts have to score touchdowns. Field goals won’t cut it against Manning. Don't be surprised if Andrew Luck is forced to go back to being Andrew Luck of last season when he had to throw 45 times a game in order for the Colts to win.
2. Avoid the emotions: This game is all about Manning. Nobody else. Reggie Wayne referred to it as a circus. The Colts have downplayed Manning’s return by referring to it as just another game on the schedule. I wouldn’t have believed them if this were my first week covering them. But I actually believe them. They do a good job keeping their emotions in check when it comes to injuries, facing quarterbacks like Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, and they’ve done a good job of avoiding the hype with Manning so far. But doing it on the football field is the only thing that matters. The Colts obviously respect Manning, but it seems like they’re tired of talking about his return.
3. Don’t get frustrated: Manning will make plays. He’s proven that over and over throughout his career. The Broncos have the best offense in the league, averaging 476 yards of total offense and 360.7 yards through the air to go with 44 points a game. The Colts got frustrated on defense because they couldn’t get off the field on third down against the Chargers. Do that Sunday night and the Broncos will easily surpass their scoring average. Cornerbacks Greg Toler, Vontae Davis and Darius Butler are risk takers. They're not going to shy away from gambling, but they better make the play because Manning will exploit them if they make a mistake. Linebacker Robert Mathis has an advantage because Denver's left tackle Ryan Clady (knee) is out for the season and right tackle Orlando Franklin is doubtful with a knee and ankle injury. “They’re going to make plays,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said about Denver. “But when the opportunity arises for us to make plays, we got to make sure we make them. It’s kind of like playing golf. It’s what you do with your mishits, not so much what you do with your hits. It’s that philosophy going into the game.”
4. Leave the drops behind: The Colts hurt themselves with a case of the drops against the Chargers. They officially had four drops even though an argument could be made that they had more -- Darrius Heyward-Bey getting both hands on the ball on what should have been a 60-yard catch -- in the first half. Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Trent Richardson and, yes, even Wayne, can’t have a repeat performance this week. “I think it was more so of an isolated incident,” Hamilton said. “It just happened that way. We’ll make those plays. Drops are not an issue for our offense.”
5. Richardson factor: Richardson deserves his own storyline because he’s yet to be a significant factor for the Colts since they acquired him Sept. 18. He hasn't rushed for more than 60 yards in a game with them. The Colts want to control the clock. It starts with Richardson. It’s time for him to step up. He’s only averaging 3.1 yards a carry as a Colt. “As far as my comfort level, I’m ready to play,” Richardson said. “I don’t know what you call a breakout game, I guess over 100 yards or whatever, but if it happens it happens. As long as we win, I think it’s a breakout game for me.”