INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning likes to say that every interception has a story. The story of his latest one might stay with him longer than most, not because of the two records he missed with the Denver Broncos' 27-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon. Those will come soon -- the yardage one certainly next week, and possibly the victories record, too, against the Kansas City Chiefs. Rather, the staying power of this pick rests on what the broader loss says about the Broncos, and the life it breathed into the team that forsook No. 18.
No, it turns out, as we all suspected since the season began, Indianapolis is not a "suck team," even after a tumultuous and emotional week. The Colts dumped offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and installed Rob Chudzinski in the job. Chudzinski and head coach Chuck Pagano go back to shared days at the University of Miami, and Chudzinski's elevation to the post might be construed as the Colts essentially allowing Pagano to sink or swim with his own guys, in this case the offensive coordinator he is believed to have wanted all along.
When Chudzinski first addressed Indianapolis' offense last week, he delivered a message: "Stick out your chests and bring the swagger," Gore recalled, relaying the speech.
What they brought was better than swagger. It brought balanced play-calling that stayed with the run despite small gains and a fast start and perhaps a season-turning victory against the league's best defense. It was just one game, and Chudzinski can't account for an improved pass rush that caught the Broncos' offensive line struggling to protect Manning. And we already have seen this season how illusory the results of coaching shakeups can be -- remember when Miami's Dan Campbell was undefeated? -- but the Colts needed a win in the worst way, not just to fend off even more dysfunction during their bye week. They needed it to convince themselves, too, that their confidence that Luck eventually would find his way was not misplaced, that they were more physical than the rest of the league thought, that if they could just stop giving opponents chances, they could prevail. And at 4-5, the Colts remain in the lead of the AFC South.
Luck played his best game, but looked and sounded weary in the postgame. His excitement was contained, perhaps out of defense to Hamilton. But the relief in the Colts' locker room was palpable.
"The thing about last week -- we fought, fought, fought, didn't get the win," Gore said of the overtime loss to the undefeated Carolina Panthers. "That can take a lot out of you. Then you have to play an undefeated team, Peyton Manning coming home. We stood up to the test. We needed it."
The Colts' fans still roared for Manning as he approached the tunnel after the game, what might have been his final valedictory salute in what was probably his last game in the stadium that is referred to here as The House that Peyton Built. To many here, Manning remains a revered figure. But it is lost on nobody that in the two games he has played in Indianapolis in another uniform -- and in three of the four games against the Colts since he left -- Manning has come out the loser. A man with a sharp tongue stood just a few feet away from where Manning walked to the locker room with his eyes staring straight ahead, until he got into a hallway and dropped his head. The man uttered a bitter synopsis of Manning's game, and Manning's career, when he said, "Fitting that Manning's final pass at Lucas Oil Stadium was an interception."
The interception, the second of Manning's day, came on the first play of what seemed certain to be a go-ahead touchdown drive for the Broncos. They had started slowly -- the first-half drives went punt, punt, punt, interception, punt, punt -- and fallen into a 17-0 hole. But a first-half-ending, 83-yard punt return score put the Broncos on the board and shook awake the sleepy offense. The second half looked more familiar, or at least the familiar that finally surfaced last week in the Broncos' demolition of the Packers: touchdown, field goal and touchdown.
The interception, Manning said, came when he had to throw earlier than he wanted because the Colts were bringing pressure, only to have Darius Butler dive in front of the intended receiver. It will trouble Manning not only because it cost the Broncos a chance to remain undefeated -- they never got the ball back, in part because cornerback Aqib Talib was called for two penalties in the final few minutes -- but because it wrapped up a problematic relapse for the Broncos, who thought their offensive rhythm was finally coming around last week, when they were able to run and protect Manning and pass at will against Green Bay.
Instead, against the team reeling from failure and drama, the Broncos struggled to protect Manning, ran only into a brick wall (35 total rushing yards) and misfired again in the passing game (Manning completed just nine of 22 passes in the first half). It wasn't a complete reversion to those early weeks -- Manning's arm looked fine for the most part, especially on a play when he bootlegged to his left and threw back to the right sideline -- but it was enough to send a chill through those who thought Denver had turned a corner vs. Green Bay and had begun to look like the complete team John Elway had envisioned to support Manning.
For two months, the Broncos were able to paper over their deficiencies, including Manning's league-leading interception total (now at 13), with their defense. But the interception and the loss undoubtedly will reignite speculation about whether Manning will retire when the season is over and whether the offense can settle in enough for the Broncos to make a deep playoff run.
Every interception does have a story. For the Broncos and Manning, this one might be an unpopular sequel.