Sunday Night Football
Denver at Indianapolis
Peyton Manning finally returns to Lucas Oil Stadium, aka the House that Manning Built, to take on the franchise that he pulled out of the gutter after being drafted #1 overall in 1998. We all know the story of how the Colts dumped Manning and took Andrew Luck #1 overall last year after their season tanked and Manning wondered if he would ever recover from his 4th neck surgery. The move has worked out well for both sides, with Denver and Indianapolis both making the playoffs last year. Manning has returned to rare form and remained his quiet, classy self throughout the whole affair, but Colts owner Jim Irsay has recently issued some inflammatory comments about franchise’s divorce from Manning. It’s no secret that Irsay likes to party and likes to make his opinions known, often taking to social media outlet Twitter. He’s generally been very respectful of Manning, but recently took a shot by saying the Colts “went in another direction” so that they could get more championships and focus less on individual stats. Peyton had no response to these comments, but you know it’s not sitting well with him. I expect his response to Jim Irsay’s comments to come in the form of a barrage of touchdown passes that falls on the Indy crowd like the rain that their dome protects them from… There’s no dome that can keep this imminent storm of Denver points at bay.
The Denver Broncos have maintained their undefeated status through this week 7 matchup, but they have looked a little more vulnerable in the past couple of weeks. They narrowly won a shootout with Dallas in week 5 thanks to a classic Tony Romo 4th-quarter interception. They also struggled mightily against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last week, eventually taking care of business and finishing the game out 35-19. Manning has thrown one interception in each of the last two games, but they are the only interceptions he’s thrown all year. He still has ridiculous stat line of 2,179 yards-22TD-2INT with a sweet rushing touchdown on a naked bootleg that the Broncos ran against Dallas. Manning’s supporting cast has flourished this season. Denver’s three-wide attack has generated big numbers (D.Thomas 37-528-4, W.Welker 37-378-8, E.Decker 34-477-2) as expected, but tight end Julius Thomas(31-381-7) has also emerged as a big-time receiving threat in his third year.This plethora of receiving options is allowing Manning’s cerebral style of play to make a bigger impact than ever. He’s always been the king of the pre-snap read, but has had poorly equipped supporting casts around him at times. With all these quality receiving options and a solid offensive line, Manning is able to exploit the many mismatches created by Thomas/Decker’s speed and size on the outside, Welker’s quickness and savvy route-running underneath, and J. Thomas’s size and athleticism from the tight end position. Denver’s offensive line has protected Manning well this year despite losing Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady and backup-turned-starter C Dan Koppen for the year. Manning has only been sacked a handful of times and has had a couple of balls stripped by pass-rushers, but he has been comfortable in the pocket most of the time.
Another player who has really stepped up his game since Manning’s arrival in Denver is running back Knowshon Moreno. Moreno was drafted in the top of the first round in 2009 but seemed to fall out of favor in Denver for a while. Upon Manning’s arrival last year, Moreno was afforded an opportunity when workhorse back Willis McGahee went down with injury. He performed well, and despite the club drafting Ronnie Hillman in the 3rd round last year and Montee Ball in the 2nd this year, Moreno remains atop the depth chart. Although he’s not the best in the league at any one thing, I’m truly inclined to believe that Moreno is one of the most well-rounded backs around. He might not be as effective in the confines of a more run-heavy offense, but this is a passing league, and his skills in pass protection and receiving are invaluable to Manning as he orchestrates the Broncos offense. Moreno’s skill set is very similar to former Colts RB Joseph Addai, who played with Manning in Indy for years. Moreno excels at blitz pickups and he is always right across that magic yellow line for clutch third-down completions. If it’s third-and-short, look for Moreno to run short out-routes out of the backfield. He is also a solid runner, and has scored multiple rushing touchdowns in games against the Giants(2) and Jaguars(3). In the week 5 shootout with the Dallas Cowboys, Moreno was instructed by Manning to convert a first down from the Dallas 2 without scoring, all in the name of proper clock management. Moreno somehow managed to get the yard necessary for the first without scoring, despite wading through the chaos of his offensive line clashing against Dallas’s goal-line defense. He’s just a clutch guy who seems to always be on the same page as Manning.
The Denver defense will get a big boost tonight from the return of Von Miller, last year’s runner-up for defensive player of the year. Miller is a pass-rushing terror when he’s at full speed, but he’s missed the first six games of this season for a suspension. Miller has reportedly been working hard to be in “game-shape” when he returns, and he has been practicing fully with the team, so it’s expected that he’ll contribute a lot in his first game back. However, there’s no substitute for the real thing, and we’ll have to see Miller in action before we can truly know how well he’s kept in shape. He has reportedly “packed on” 16 pounds of muscle, so hopefully the extra weight won’t compromise the quickness and flexibility that makes Miller such a dominant pass-rusher. The Broncos will also benefit from having Champ Bailey back after he made his first start(injury) of the season. Bailey got some quality reps against the Jaguars last week and should be primed for a tough night against Andrew Luck and company.
The Indianapolis Colts are 4-2 this year behind second-year QB Andrew Luck, whose drafting last year prompted Indy’s dismissal of Manning. Indianapolis fans will finally get to see the former 13-year face of their franchise face off against his successor, toe-to-toe. Luck is certainly capable of handling himself in a shootout, but he’s a little more limited in the weapons at his disposal. WR Reggie Wayne is a talented veteran who played the majority of his career with Manning. His productivity hasn’t slowed down at all since Luck’s arrival, however. He’s been a reliable target for Luck while his younger cohorts develop. T.Y. Hilton is the foremost of these young talents. Despite his small stature, he’s an explosive playmaker who seems due for at least one long-yardage passing play a game. TE Coby Fleener, Luck’s old Stanford teammate, shows flashes but hasn’t produce at a consistent level yet. Fellow second year TE Dwayne Allen, a rising talent, is out with an injury. The Colts shocked the fanbases of both franchises when they traded a first round pick for Cleveland’s Trent Richardson, who was drafted third overall last year, two spots behind Luck. Richardson has contributed minimally so far, scoring a couple of short yardage touchdowns and posting modest per-carry averages behind lackluster offensive line play. Richardson is still learning the ins and outs of the Colt’s playbook, so there’s no reason to think his contributions won’t improve each week. Backup RB Donald Brown has also shown signs of life, after injuries have afforded him some opportunities. He has underwhelmed so far since being drafted in the first round a few years ago, but has given Richardson’s fantasy owners fits the past few weeks by vulturing carries and touchdowns. The Colts offensive line will be the first in the NFL tasked with corralling Von Miller this season. Luck has taken his share of hits this season, and has bailed the O-line out sometimes with his mobility and strength.
The Colts defense is adjusting to their second year of transitioning to a 3-4 defense from the 4-3 that they traditionally ran during Manning’s tenure. Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea are two of the few holdovers from the Manning days who are still hanging around in Indy. Mathis has transitioned well from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, recording 9.5 sacks in just 6 games this season. Manning won’t have that red practice jersey on anymore, and Mathis will finally get a shot at tackling the guy he chased around the practice field his first 9 years in the league. The Colts defense has been stingy so far this season, twice holding opponents to single-digit point totals. They haven’y allowed more than 28 points in any game this season, but the Broncos haven’t scored less than 35 in any of their six contests, and have three times scored 49 or more. Something’s got to give.
The Colts have only played one team this year that fielded a veteran quarterback with more than 2 year’s starting experience. That team, the Chargers, beat the Colts. Phillip Rivers is playing his arse off this year, but he’s nowhere near Manning’s level. The other quarterbacks that the Colts have faced this year (Pryor, Tannehill, Kaepernick, Wilson, Gabbert) are young and still inconsistent in their performances. Manning has as many years experience as those last five guys combined. Also, the majority of teams that Indy has played this year do not have nearly the talent in the receiving core that the Broncos do(Oakland, San Diego, San Fran, Jacksonville sans-Blackmon). It’s going to be a long night at home for the Indy defense. Luck can certainly hold his own in a shootout, but this is Peyton Manning we’re talking about here, returning to the franchise that cast him aside for a young replacement. Manning keeps his personal feelings to himself, but you know this game means as much to him as any has since his return to football.
Prediction Denver 49 Indianapolis 34
Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne… expect this to be a shootout, so there’s going to be lots of opportunities for fantasy points.
Either defense. Coby Fleener. Knowshon Moreno- He’ll get his fair share of touches, but Manning gave Moreno three rushing touchdowns last week so that he can unload on the Colts with the passing game this week.
Jacob Tamme is a former Colt who followed Manning to Denver in free agency after Indianapolis’s huge roster shakeup at the end of Manning’s tenure. Julius Thomas has seized the role of starting tight end, and last year’s starter Joel Dreesen is recently back from injury, but Tamme is still a viable receiving option. Maybe Manning gets Tamme in there for a touchdown to honor their Indy days.
I have no idea why Irsay wasn’t cast as Kenny Powers dad in the third season of Eastbound and Down, they favor each other quite a bit.