INDIANAPOLIS -- The tribute had been touching and blissfully brief, the reaction poignant. Peyton Manning's reintroduction to Indianapolis Colts fans probably was as special as he could have hoped for -- those in the crowd rose to cheer him, and they bathed him in their appreciation when he removed his helmet and waved to acknowledge them during warm-ups.
The week leading up to the game had drained him, Manning finally admitted after it was over. But he had received advice that he should take a moment to appreciate the tribute, and he did. And then, after a minute or two, it was over, and Manning went back to his warm-up throws.
But then the feel-good moments that had erased the bile of last week's buildup dissipated as quickly as the highlight video ended, and what was left was a harsh reality. Colts owner Jim Irsay has gotten the well-rounded team he craved when he released Manning. And in "The House that Manning Built" -- Lucas Oil Stadium almost certainly would not have been constructed without his presence here -- Manning was beaten, in their first meeting, by the quarterback Irsay wanted so badly that he set Peyton loose.
"I'm in some ways somewhat relieved this game is over," Manning said. "I feel like, hopefully, we'll get a chance to play these guys again, because that would mean we made the playoffs. We've got a long way to go before that, but you certainly see them being in the postseason. If there is a next time, it may be a little bit easier, because it was somewhat of an emotional week."
Last week, when Manning didn't want to talk anymore about how he'd feel upon returning to play his former team for the first time, he launched into a little filibuster by mentioning how concerned he was about Robert Mathis, the Colts' premier pass rusher. Manning might have just been trying to change the subject, but he was prescient anyway. Mathis' crushing hit on Manning near the Broncos' goal line was the turning point of the game -- Manning's fumble turned into a safety, the first of four unanswered Colts scores -- and it seemed to underscore Irsay's point.
The Colts now have a defense the quality of which they had only sporadically when Manning played here. The unit entered the game ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring defense, and its pass rush bedeviled the banged-up Broncos offensive line all night, sacking Manning four times and directly causing an interception. The Colts have improved special-teams play, with the punt team creating a pivotal takeaway of its own.
And in Andrew Luck, the quarterback Irsay was convinced would be more durable than Robert Griffin III, the Colts have a player who is capable not only of grasping the franchise torch from Manning but maybe of adding another Lombardi Trophy to the mantel that Irsay so indelicately discussed last week. Luck completed 21 of his 38 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns, adding 29 yards and another score on the ground. Though Luck and the Colts did suffer one enormous loss Sunday: Reggie Wayne tore his ACL and is done for the season. This certainly will put Indianapolis' well-roundedness to the test.
The Broncos held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, on the strength of two Manning touchdown passes. But it took Manning almost an entire quarter to get right after Mathis' blind-side hit with just under nine minutes remaining in the half. Whether he was hurt or just rattled, Manning's passes were notably off target for a time afterward.
"I throw a lot of wobbly passes," Manning said. "Throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too."
After the safety came a Luck-generated drive -- including the quarterback's third-down scramble for 11 yards, in which he lunged to get the first down -- that resulted in a 20-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Havili. And then, after the Broncos were held scoreless on their next two drives, Luck led a two-minute drill that resulted in another touchdown and a 12-point halftime lead.
The Broncos didn't get even a first down from the two-minute warning in the first half until 4:15 remained in the third quarter -- and that drive ended with a field goal that closed the gap to 16 points. The Broncos closed the gap further, because whatever frailties Denver might have, Manning's offense is capable of gobbling up large chunks of the field quickly. But when Manning's arm was hit midway through the fourth quarter as he was about to start a drive that might have retaken the lead, the ball was intercepted. On the next drive, the Broncos fumbled just as they were about to score.
Manning has been in similar situations so many times before, famously mounting jaw-dropping comebacks in high-profile games. He probably will do so again. But on Sunday, Manning met a team designed to win games like this, constructed at the owner's behest precisely because of the handful of games in which even Manning's brilliance was not enough to win for the Colts in years past. Manning finished 29 of 49 for 386 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
The Colts now have beaten three of the best teams in the NFL -- San Francisco, Seattle and Denver -- and if Manning harbors any lingering bitterness over his wrenching departure, he will have to wait until the playoffs to avenge it. There is irony there, too. That is the lone sliver of football Manning has not entirely mastered. And now the Broncos are, incredibly, behind the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
Manning said he and Irsay communicated late last week, and Manning let Irsay know how much he appreciated the owner planning the tribute. Manning didn't see Irsay on Sunday night, but after the final seconds ticked away, Manning encountered a football receiving line, made up of Colts players and support staff who wanted to shake his hand. It was a testament to the relationships Manning built here, the ones that were ripped away when the Colts released him.
On Sunday night, more than a year and a half removed from his release, it felt as if everyone had finally moved on. Manning whispered a few words to Luck as they shook hands, and Manning said he enjoyed coming back.
"I can move past that," he said of last week's dust-up with Irsay. "Can't speak for others. I don't see that being a lasting factor."
With the hatchet buried, then, the only thing that might last from Sunday night for Manning is the few minutes of sweet memories. And, perhaps, Irsay's vision for the new Colts coming to fruition.