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Divisional Round preview: Colts-Broncos

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The backstory

Has any franchise enjoyed more quarterback luck than the Colts? They instigated the NFL's prominence among American sports with the thrilling 1958 Championship game starring Johnny Unitas, cast off by the Steelers just three years earlier. When the end came for Unitas, they landed 1976 MVP Bert Jones with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1973 draft. Two decades later, they opted for Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft. When neck surgeries called Manning's career into question, Andrew Luck fell into Jim Irsay's lap atop the 2012 draft.

Just imagine if top draft pick John Elway hadn't demanded a 1983 trade by using the New York Yankees as leverage against former Colts owner Robert Irsay.

Manning's 227 games with the Colts are 85 more than any other quarterback has played prior to facing his former team in the playoffs. The matchup between Luck and Manning is just the seventh time in postseason history that the NFL's leader in touchdown passes (Luck, 40) will face off against the second-best (Manning, 39) in that category. The leader is 5-1 in the previous six matchups.

The two organizations have met twice since Luck landed in Indianapolis. The Colts handed the Broncos their first loss of the 2013 season, with Luck starring in a 39-33 shootout. Denver returned the favor in Week 1 of this season, jumping out to a 24-0 lead and hanging on even though Luck had the ball with a chance to tie in the fourth quarter.

Both teams have undergone major changes in the meantime. Luck's offense has been forced to relegate Trent Richardson and Reggie Wayne to the margins. With Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas nursing an ankle injury, it has been Manning himself who has been marginalized in Denver, giving way to the ground attack as the offensive focal point.

Will this game stand as an unofficial torch-passing?

Under pressure

Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos:

From Weeks 9-11, Manning's arm was tasked with the most pass attempts (155) he's ever thrown in a three-game span. A month later he was coming off the fewest passes attempted (74) over a three-game span in his decorated 17-year career.

To be fair, Manning understandably struggled at times behind a reshuffled offensive line while dealing with the absence of top red-zone threat Julius Thomas and the decline of security blanket Wes Welker.

But when a coaching staff takes the ball out of the hands of the NFL's only five-time MVP winner and places the offense on the shoulders of an undrafted running back, it raises red flags.

The statistics and the game film agree that November and December of this season were among the least effective two-month stretches of Manning's career.

Whether it was the result of overuse or not, Manning didn't fully trust his arm, failing to aggressively push the ball downfield. His interception percentage skyrocketed, perhaps because defensive backs could afford to sit on shallower routes with less authority on Manning's vertical throws.

In addition to the obvious arm strength question, Manning is hounded by the same legacy narrative that took center stage in last year's playoffs. If he wants to be viewed as the preeminent quarterback in history as opposed to the asterisk-ridden greatest regular-season quarterback ever, he needs to carry his team to the title for a second time.

To do so, he will have to reverse cold-weather and postseason trends in a Sunday afternoon game projected to be in the range of 40 degrees.

Manning's teams are 10-12 all-time when the temperature is below 40 degrees at kickoff. That includes an 0-4 mark in the playoffs.

He has lost his first playoff game in eight different seasons, which is twice as many as any quarterback in history and equals the combined totals of Brett Favre (3), Dan Marino (3) and Tom Brady (2).

If the Broncos win the Super Bowl, Manning will be the oldest starting quarterback to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, topping general manager John Elway by more than three months.

Matchup to watch:

Andrew Luck's aerial attack versus Broncos pass rush and cornerbacks:

A month back, the Around The NFL Podcast suggested the Colts would have to de-emphasize a sluggish Trent Richardson and a injury-ravaged Reggie Wayne in favor of Boom Herron, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener to climb out of their late-season slump on offense.

Coach Chuck Pagano did exactly that in the Wild Card Round win over the Bengals. Luck promptly got back on track in spectacular fashion, unleashing as many "wow" throws as any quarterback all season while piling up 482 yards of offense versus the Bengals. That figure excludes over 100 yards and a touchdown left on the field by T.Y. Hilton and Fleener.

Whereas Cincinnati fielded the NFL's softest pass rush, Denver boasts one of football's most imposing duos in sack artists Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The Colts won't give more than a cursory effort at establishing a ground attack versus the Broncos' second-ranked run defense, which means Luck will throw at least 40 times against a secondary that features two of the stingiest cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and second-team All-Pro Chris Harris -- aided by Miller and Ware pinning their ears back to take advantage of Luck's porous pass protection.

Luck and Hilton will get their numbers. The question is whether that production is riddled with interceptions, fumbles and misfires under heavy fire.

Mind-blowing stats:

The Broncos are second only to the Seahawks in home-field record (24-3) over the last three seasons. ... No running back in the NFL had more rushing yards (648) or TD (8) in the final six weeks of the regular season than C.J. Anderson. ... Manning's 6,589 passing yards are the most in postseason history. His passer rating from Weeks 14-17 was 76.8, a dropoff of 31.0 points from Weeks 1-13. ... Demaryius Thomas is averaging 106.7 receiving yards per game in his playoff career, the most in NFL history with a minimum of five games. If the minimum is set at four games, T.Y. Hilton's 124.0 is atop the list. ... This matchup features the two cornerbacks with the lowest opposing passer rating this season, in Harris (31.7) and Vontae Davis (39.8). With Davis in coverage, Manning-to-Demaryius Thomas has managed just one reception for eight yards and a 39.6 passer rating in their two meetings.

The Colts are 1-3 this season against teams that are still in the playoffs. ... Andrew Luck passed Kurt Warner last week for most passing yards (1,438) in a quarterback's first four postseason starts. ... Luck finished the regular season with 22 giveaways, second only to Jay Cutler's 24. He is just the eight player in history with 40 touchdown passes in a season. ... Since entering the league in 2012, Luck has the third-most game-winning drives, including playoff games. ... Boom Herron's 141 yards from scrimmage versus the Bengals are the fifth-most by a running back in franchise history. ... Since 1960, Randy Moss is the only player with more than T.Y. Hilton's 19 games of at least 100 yards in his first three seasons. ... All four of Donte Moncrief's touchdowns have come on plays of least 30 yards. ... The Colts are 12-0 when they allow fewer than 30 points and 0-5 when they allow more.

Prediction:

The Broncos clearly have the more talented team, with an edge at running back, offensive line, wide receiver, defensive line and in the secondary. The Bengals had similar advantages last week, only to lose when the quarterback battle tipped heavily in the Colts' favor. Unless Manning's arm spent the bye week in the rejuvenation machine, I'm skeptical that he can match throws with Luck in a potential shootout.

Indianapolis Colts 27, Denver Broncos 24

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews every Divisional Round game and breaks down the Manning-Luck matchup. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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