Jan 10, 2015 12:24 PM

Winner of Luck vs. Manning III gets trip to AFC championship

The Associated Press

DENVER (AP) When Colts owner Jim Irsay scans the field Sunday, he'll see in the Denver Broncos the kind of team he admittedly couldn't surround Peyton Manning with nearly enough during their 14 years together in Indianapolis.

Equilibrium on offense, dominance on defense a team that doesn't necessarily have to ride Superman's cape in its Super Bowl quest.

Remember Irsay's comments preceding Manning's emotional homecoming in 2013 about giving up the old Indy offense's "Star Wars" numbers in a quest for more Super Bowl rings? It raised a lot of eyebrows, but his point was this: he thinks the formula for winning more championships is better balance.

John Elway thinks so, too, and that's precisely what the Broncos (12-4) have as they host the Colts (12-5), who again have a star QB covering up deficiencies elsewhere.

After the record-shattering Broncos were demolished in the Super Bowl, Elway bolstered his defense by signing Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward to a guaranteed $60 million. He also replaced Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders and drafted Bradley Roby.

Following the inexplicable loss at St. Louis at midseason, the Broncos pumped the brakes on their Lamborghini offense and watched fourth-string running back C.J. Anderson blossom behind a restructured line.

Although that downshifting spawned the "What's wrong with Peyton?" buzz, consider this: the Broncos were 3-4 when Manning threw for more than 300 yards this season, 9-0 when he didn't.

"It takes a team," is the new mantra in the locker room.

Almost all Manning's key numbers are down from 2013, but these less-flashy Broncos may have a better chance of winning it all providing they can keep Luck from winning his first road playoff game.

Interestingly, the Colts are relying more on Luck than they ever did on Manning.

In his time in Indy from 1998-2011, Manning was responsible for 73.3 percent of the Colts' total net yards. During his three seasons there, Luck has accounted for 78 percent, according to STATS.

Granted, some of that is due to Luck's mobility his 905 yards rushing in his three-year career are already more than Manning accumulated in Indianapolis (722).

"Even when they're one-dimensional, they're not one-dimensional because he'll take off and run it," Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

And throw it: Luck led the league with 40 TD throws.

That was one more than Manning, who threw just three TD passes in December to go along with six interceptions.

His coach scoffed at the notion anything's wrong with Manning.

"I think a year ago, he broke probably every single-season record known to man. It was the style we played and what was best for our team at that point," John Fox said. "This year I think we're a little bit different team. We're built different. He was a 12-4 quarterback during the regular season, which is I think tied for the best record in football this year."

The winner advances to the AFC championship. Among other subplots:

60 MINUTES: The Colts overcame a 28-point deficit to beat the Chiefs in the playoffs last year and nearly erased a 24-0 halftime hole in Denver in the 2014 opener.

"You can't relax," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said. "It's going to take 60 minutes of football to win in the playoffs and we know that. So that's what we're going to have in our minds going into the game and 59 1/2 is not going to be enough."

RAHIM'S REDEMPTION: Speaking of letting up late, Broncos safety Rahim Moore is playing in his first postseason game since his gaffe against Baltimore two years ago when he allowed Jacoby Jones to haul in a 70-yard TD catch with 31 seconds left in regulation.

"Don't dwell on the past," Moore said. "You've got to be futuristic."

COLTS' TIGHT ENDS: Upsetting Denver would likely require big performances from tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, both of whom scored eight TDs this season. The Broncos surrendered nine TDs to tight ends as teams shied away from Pro Bowl cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Talib.

MARSHALL PLAN: Denver led the league with nine Pro Bowlers, but linebacker Brandon Marshall wasn't among them, and he was their top tackler despite missing the last two games with a sprained right foot. His return provides a big boost in facing Luck's intermediate game.

RED ZONE INEFFICIENCY: Thomas has 12 TDs but none since spraining his left ankle Nov. 16. Before his injury, the Broncos scored 24 TDs in 31 trips inside the opponents' 20. They've reached the end zone just 15 times in 31 trips since.

If he's healthy Sunday, watch out. Thomas had three TDs against Indy in the opener, in single coverage against two linebackers and a safety.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


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