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Peyton Manning quiet ahead of Indy return; Week 7 storylines

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is a picture of Peyton Manning in the rear corner of the Lucas Oil Stadium press box. It's of his back, and he appears to be about to emerge from a tunnel into bright sunshine, the horseshoe still on his helmet, his relationship with the Indianapolis Colts still bathed in light.

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It is, aside from the numerous No. 18 jerseys that still dot the backs of fans in the stands and around Indianapolis, one of the few visible reminders of Manning's time with the Colts. The massive picture of him that hung against the façade of the building was pulled down in the days after he was released by the team 19 months ago. It is impossible not to notice that Andrew Luck now is one of the first faces you see when you land in Indianapolis: a floor-to-ceiling shot of his face hawking a brand of speakers is plastered on the wall as you exit the airport terminal.

Manning might prefer that the pictures alone explain the story of the changing of the Colts' guard as the Denver Broncos prepare to play his former team. Then he would not have to talk about how he expects to feel when he enters -- as a visitor -- the stadium whose existence he is almost entirely responsible for. But perhaps the most telling moment of Peyton Manning's you-can't-go-home-again week came Wednesday, when a reporter from Indianapolis asked if he was happy to see the Colts doing well.

For all of Manning's considerable media-relations gifts, even he can't always control his body language. He smiled when talking about how he has never lost touch with Indianapolis fans or with the children's hospital that bears his name, and how he remains close to many of his former teammates. He offered a nice bit of filibuster when he went off on tangents about his banged-up offensive line and how worried he is about Robert Mathis.

But when asked about seeing his former team having success, Manning's feelings betrayed him. He slumped slightly and looked at the ground for one of the very few times during the entire news conference. And he wouldn't answer.

"Well, I guess my focus is on the Broncos trying to be successful, and I'm trying to do my job to help them," he said.

But how about the Colts being competitive after all the changes they went through?

"I agree. So, does that help your story if I concur?"

It certainly tells part of the story. It was all subtlety with Manning, who would not engage in a war of words with Jim Irsay. If you expected him to go "idiot kicker" on the Colts owner, you were very disappointed -- and you probably haven't been paying much attention.

Manning had ample opportunity to smooth over the narrative this week, to let Irsay off the hook for the awkward comments the Colts owner made to USA Today about why he let the quarterback go, comments that made Irsay sound, perhaps inadvertently, ungrateful for the one Super Bowl they won together.

Manning did not do it. He was clipped in declining to address what Irsay had said. This, then, was about what Manning did not say and the way he did not say it.

There is little doubt Manning's departure from Indianapolis was wrenching and that it still rankles. You don't say something like "I've learned that in life you need to be at peace with other people's decisions that affect you, that you have no control over," without revealing that the bromide has been put to the test in the past 18 months.

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But since joining the Broncos, Manning has assiduously avoided addressing his exit. Bill Polian, the man who drafted Manning and was fired by the Colts not long before Manning was released, believes it is far more difficult for the quarterback to play games against his brother, Eli, than to return to Lucas Oil Stadium and oppose his old team.

Still, it was hard to watch Manning this week and not come away thinking he's angry at Irsay's remarks. And that the response Manning most wants to make will come in the final score, which he would undoubtedly prefer to be lopsided, to provide the resounding rejoinder to the notion that the Colts' decision to release him and move on with Luck was best for all parties.

Irsay had expressed similar sentiments before, but Manning is a fierce competitor and it is easy to imagine how he must have felt when he heard of the latest comments. There is little doubt their relationship is strained. In an interview just before Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl that eventually was won by Manning's brother, when Irsay already had begun his housecleaning, Peyton volunteered in a conversation we had that he felt like he was walking around on eggshells, because he didn't know who would be fired next. A few days later, Irsay called Manning "a politician" for making remarks like that.

Manning remained close to some in the organization -- when he made a particularly good throw early in his first practices with the Broncos, he sent a video of it to the Colts trainers who had tended to him following his neck surgeries -- but Irsay obviously is not one of them.

Before Bill Belichick faced the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, he said he wished the Patriots were facing somebody else, because of the warm feelings he still had for the team that helped shape him. He recalled that whenever he took one of his teams to play in the old Giants Stadium, he always felt like he should have been turning left -- where the Giants' home locker room was -- even though he had been turning right toward the visitors' room for so many seasons.

Maybe some of that wistfulness will visit Manning on Sunday, when he'll have to figure out where the visitors' locker room is in Indianapolis.

"How I'll feel walking into that stadium?" Manning said. "I can't tell you that right now. I'll probably know after the game. I probably may not tell you that after the game, either."

Fair enough.

There is one more picture that hangs in Indianapolis, one that might tell the story of what used to be as well as any other. It is of Peyton, Eli and their father, Archie. It has hung in Irsay's office for years, and it was still there this week. Like family photos after a bitter divorce, it is a reminder of happier times.

In addition to Manning's return to Indianapolis, here are 10 more things to ponder in Week 7:

1) Can the Patriots' defense hold up after a tidal wave of big injuries? Yes, tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play this Sunday. This is obviously a huge development for an offense that needs Gronk's help -- as discussed in this space last week -- but the Pats remain depleted on the other side of the ball. In New England's Week 2 win over the Jets, New York quarterback Geno Smith was intercepted three times in the fourth quarter. But the Patriots' defense was much healthier then, with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and cornerback Aqib Talib on the field. Wilfork already is gone to injured reserve, and Mayo, who played every down of the Week 2 game, joined him this week with a torn pectoral muscle. Talib injured his hip last week, and he is expected to miss the game, too. Can the Jets -- who own the 29th-ranked scoring offense, are coming off a six-point effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers and have the fourth-most turnovers in the league -- take advantage of those absences?

2) What will the Dallas-Philadelphia game tell us about those two teams -- and about the Eagles' quarterback conundrum? The Cowboys and Eagles share the NFC East lead at 3-3, but neither has a victory against an opponent with a winning record (Dallas' opponents are 4-13; Philadelphia's are 1-15). This is a particularly big game for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who has a higher completion percentage, more touchdown passes and a higher passer rating than Michael Vick this season, but who still is not assured of keeping the job once Vick is healthy. By the way, of all NFL quarterbacks, Foles is completing the highest percentage of passes that go at least 11 yards downfield.

3) Is there any chance the Texans' tailspin will end against the Chiefs? It will be an uphill battle for Case Keenum in his first NFL start. His predecessors, Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates, combined to throw a pick-six in five consecutive games for Houston. In the Texans' four losses, they have been outscored 125-45. Kansas City's defense, meanwhile, is ranked first in scoring defense (10.8 points per game) and sacks (31) and is tied for first in interceptions (10), fumble recoveries (eight) and defensive touchdowns (four).

4) How many points will the Bears score against the Redskins' defense? Chicago is averaging 28.7 points per game, third in the league, while Washington is 27th in scoring defense. The Bears have won three of their past four road games, but they haven't won at Washington since 2001.

5) Which team really did turn the corner last week -- the Rams or the Panthers? Sam Bradford and Cam Newton both posted the best passer ratings of their careers in Week 6. While Carolina received lots of attention for its aggressive approach on fourth down, St. Louis scored 38 points, the most for the franchise since 2006. The host Panthers are going for their first winning streak of the season, while the Rams are trying to win their second road game in a row.

6) Can the Giants get their first win of the season while Josh Freeman gets his first start as the Vikings' quarterback? Freeman will try to rebuild his career after his release from Tampa Bay, where he went 0-3 this season and compiled the worst completion percentage in the league (45.7). The Giants' defense (ranked 24th in the NFL) probably is more worried about Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who already has more carries (102) and more yards (483) than he did through five games last season, when he finished with the second-most rushing yards in history.

7) Can anyone here run the ball? The Ravens and Steelers traditionally have one of the most physical rivalries in the game, but neither team can run this season. The Ravens are 27th in rushing yards, and Ray Rice is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, almost 2 yards below his career average. The Steelers are even worse; they're ranked 31st in rushing yards, with an average of 61 yards per game. Coming off their first victory of the season, the Steelers might have a harder time getting going: The Ravens' rushing defense is ranked eighth in the league.

8) Will the reeling Bucs help the reeling Falcons turn around their season? Winless Tampa Bay will kick off a decidedly favorable stretch of the schedule for one-win Atlanta. Seven of the Falcons' remaining 11 games come against teams currently owning losing records.

9) Will the flurry of aerial assaults continue as the weather turns colder? The season already features the most passing yards per game through six weeks since 1960 (263.8 per team), as well as a total of 289 touchdown passes -- the most through six weeks in NFL history.

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10) Will the Packers end the Browns' feel-good story? Cleveland's loss last week snapped a three-game winning streak -- and the Browns allowed 31 points in the process. Green Bay, which is second in total offense and has fielded a 100-yard rusher in three of its past four games, should test Cleveland's seventh-ranked rushing defense.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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