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Jim Irsay's Indianapolis Colts appear way ahead of schedule

It has been almost two years since Jim Irsay mused aloud about what he was about to do: host a Super Bowl while preparing for the departure of the very reason the game had been given to Indianapolis. Irsay knew then what he had planned for Peyton Manning, knew the public fallout from such a fraught decision, knew how awkward this juxtaposition was -- the parties to come, the heartbreak to follow.

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"It's challenging times for sure, and hosting the Super Bowl is really interesting because in some ways, it was the final piece of our golden era of before," Irsay told me in an interview that January day. It was the same day Chuck Pagano accepted Irsay's offer to become his next head coach.

As excited as Irsay was about Pagano, the implication of his words that gray and snowy day was obvious. The golden era was over. Irsay is the NFL's flower-child owner -- there aren't many of them who keep pillar candles on their desks -- but even full of new-age optimism, he probably could not have imagined the next one would start so quickly, that there would be no dimming of the light in between. Irsay talked that day, too, of there being no wise man behind the curtain to give him all the answers, as he had thought when he was younger.

It turns out that, intemperate as his public comments last week were, Irsay has had many of the right answers himself.

Early Monday morning, as Manning slipped out of Lucas Oil Stadium, a few more fans snapping a picture of his face -- it looked relieved his emotional week was over as much as disappointed with the Denver Broncos' loss -- there could be no doubt that a new golden era has begun. The Colts' Chuckstrong-fueled run to the playoffs last season was a warm narrative, but it might have obscured something more elemental about the team. The Colts are legitimate title contenders right now, built the way Irsay hoped they would be but executing beyond any reasonable expectation for such a short time span.

Sunday's games revealed the frailties of the AFC's more expected powers. Manning's Broncos struggled to protect him from a pass rush with a patched-together offensive line, and the defense was not good enough to help engineer a comeback. So now Denver, which had been looking all but untouchable a week ago, is one game back in the AFC West and facing the rather stunning prospect that it could end up a wild-card team in the playoffs. The New England Patriots got tight end Rob Gronkowski back, and he made, predictably, a huge impact on their offense. But their injury-battered defense -- which when healthy gave the offense breathing room to find itself early in the season -- now is their undoing, allowing the New York Jets to beat them and unexpectedly close the lead in the AFC East to only one game.

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Left standing are the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL's lone undefeated team. And the Colts. Did anyone expect that their Dec. 22 meeting at Arrowhead Stadium might have so much meaning attached?

If Sunday wasn't exactly a full changing of the guard -- it is impossible to imagine the AFC playoffs without both Brady and Manning involved -- then it at least might have given a glimpse of the way of the future.

Last year, after Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson took control in Indy, they refused to talk about rebuilding, stating that they wanted to win right now. The common reaction was to smile kindly but look at Pagano and Grigson as if they were a little loony. Turning over a roster, exiling a legendary quarterback, overhauling a franchise as completely as the Colts did last season usually takes years to bear results. But the Colts' youth has provided an unexpected bonus: They don't know any better -- so they weren't overwhelmed by Manning's return any more than they were by Pagano's illness last year, weren't burdened by Jim Irsay's ill-timed assessment of Manning's era.

Luck, it turns out, has the perfect temperament to take over for an icon. He was discrete enough to keep his brief conversation with Manning private and mature enough to let the entire week play out around him. Whether Irsay publicly sounded off about Manning to deflect attention and pressure from his team last week, or to get into Manning's head, is unknown. But Luck did not put any pressure on himself to outdo his predecessor, to prove to the nation that Indianapolis is his town now, too, although there can be little doubt that is true.

"Zero. Zero," Pagano said. "About the same amount he put on here when he signed his first contract, which was none."

Luck's job, of course, will get considerably more complicated now that Reggie Wayne has been lost for the season with a torn knee ligament. Wayne has been a critical presence for Luck: the reliable veteran amid the newbies, providing a bridge of experience for an offense in transition and a safety valve when Luck has been under duress. Wayne was the Colts' leading receiver.

Luck blamed himself for Wayne's injury -- the QB underthrew a pass intended for a wide-open Wayne, who seemed to wrench his knee when he moved to try to reach the ball -- and the depth of feeling for the receiver was obvious, even with a glance to the opposing sideline. As Wayne was helped to his feet by doctors Sunday night, Manning stood near his sideline watching him and applauding.

But as the Colts head into their bye week at 5-2 with a two-game lead in the AFC South, it is impossible to ignore where they are right now. The Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are a combined 0-3 against Indy -- and 17-1 in the rest of their games.

The Colts still have their lapses, like the inexplicably conservative offensive approach in the Week 6 loss to the San Diego Chargers. But for now -- and barring even more devastating injuries -- they and the Chiefs are the most complete, if not flashy, teams in the AFC.

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The Colts began their Sunday by showing the Manning tribute video, which ended with a shot of him holding the Lombardi Trophy aloft. Irsay keeps a lot of memorabilia in his office, including a guitar once owned by Jerry Garcia and the scroll on which "On the Road" was written. Early Monday morning, he left the Colts' locker room with a new memento for his display case. After a long, tumultuous week, Pagano gave the game ball to Irsay because, the head coach said, of the support the owner gives to his team.

It was a trophy of a different kind than Manning's, but it leaves no doubt that a new golden era already is underway.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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