INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL’s version of “Shark Week” finished with a twist few saw coming.
You couldn’t turn on a TV last week without seeing Peyton Manning and hearing somebody or the other guarantee how he was going to return to Indianapolis and mercilessly shred the Colts. The only thing missing from most of the clips was the soundtrack from “Jaws” playing in the background.
Instead of being the predator, though, for once Manning wound up as the prey.
“I am kind of relieved in some ways that this game is over,” he said at the end of a long night.
It wasn’t just that the Colts halted Denver’s unbeaten start this season at six games — and 17 straight during the regular season — with a 39-33 defeat. Or the uncharacteristic four turnovers by the Broncos, or even the undisciplined meltdowns that led to a dozen penalties for 103 yards.
Or the way Manning’s former employers threw a pregame ceremony to honor the player who brought the city a Super Bowl and more, then unleashed a hungry defense that unceremoniously knocked him on his keister four times — and hurried the quarterback on 10 other occasions. It wasn’t even being outplayed by Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck — 13 years his junior — in front of the very same crowd that Manning once owned.
Manning couldn’t put his finger on exactly why he and the Broncos seemed out of sorts, and he wasn’t about to lean on alibis. So we’ll attempt it for him.
He was playing in front of a makeshift offensive line; both of the Broncos’ regular tackles are out injured, and they couldn’t have picked a worse game to miss.
Not only do some of Manning’s former teammates know how and where he likes to make plays; some of them, like close pal and Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis, practiced against him for eight straight seasons without being allowed to so much as touch him. Needless to say, Mathis had a few scores to settle.
Unfettered for just one night, the five-time Pro Bowler showed Chris Clark — filling in at left tackle — about as much respect as a traffic pylon. He wound up going over, around and on occasion right through Clark to pick up two sacks and a handful of stops.
“If you’re not on top of the minute things, he’s going to make plays,” Mathis said about Manning. “We know what he can do.”
And now, for all the things he already knew about Mathis, Manning can tell you exactly how hard he hits. Early in the second quarter, Mathis zoomed past Clark and smashed into Manning from the blind side, forcing a fumble that skidded out of the end zone for a safety.
“It certainly was a good hit,” Manning said, grinning. “A healthy one, I’d call it.”
Soon after, Manning was seen on the sideline practicing short throws. He underthrew several passes later in the game, but when asked whether Mathis’ hit affected his arm strength, Manning laughed it off.
“I throw a lot of wobbly passes,” he said. “I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too.”
Luck, meanwhile, did some of the things Manning was revered for better than the master himself. Luck caught the Broncos’ defense with the wrong personnel on field several times and made hurry-up play calls to take advantage. He was poised in the face of the Denver rush, calmly stepping forward in the pocket to buy his receivers some time.
He even did one thing Manning almost never does anymore — make plays with his feet. With five minutes left in the third quarter, 10 yards to the end zone and the play falling apart, Luck took off around the right side and beat Denver’s defenders to the corner. Then he did something else Manning doesn’t do, either. He wound up and viciously spiked the ball for punctuation, in contrast to describing it afterward.
“We knew we needed the points,” Luck said. “So that was a big drive.”
One thing Luck had no problem talking about was watching Manning.
“Unbelievable,” he began. “He throws the ball incredibly well. He’s always in control of the moment.”
Before he got carried away, Luck paused.
“It was not fun to watch him, but a little part of you is watching and saying, ‘Wow. That’s really impressive.’”
For his part, Manning wasn’t so sure about his body of work on this night. He did finally acknowledge being “probably more tired coming into this game than others,” before adding. “But I guess that’s just natural.”
One thing he wasn’t going to do was talk about any lingering bad feelings after owner Jim Irsay suggested during an interview last week that one Super Bowl title in Manning’s 14 years wasn’t enough.
“I think I can move past that, but I can’t speak for others,” Manning said. “I don’t see that being a lasting thing.”
In other words, the fact that Manning didn’t get his revenge on this night doesn’t mean he’s forgotten it altogether.
Spoken like a real shark.