DENVER -- **In the end, a fast start was all the Broncos had in a humbling, 24-13 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
After the offense opened its day with a smooth seven-play, 68-yard sprint to a touchdown, it gasped and wheezed to just 146 yards over the next 50 minutes until racking up 100 yards on two final, fruitless drives in the game's final moments.
"Like I say every game, not a whole lot surprises you in football anymore, because every game can go in different directions," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "But you certainly didn't see it turning that way after a good first drive."
On the seven series that followed the touchdown drive, the Broncos averaged just 14.9 yards per possession and earned just five first downs. Three of the drives ended in three-and-outs; another with the strip-sack fumble of Manning that set up a 41-yard touchdown drive that put Indianapolis in front to stay.
"Not good enough. Didn't play well enough," Manning said, placing the burden on his shoulders. "I give them (the Colts) a lot of credit. Their defense played well and their defense forced us into some bad execution, but I thought we had some chances as well and I thought I could have played better."
Meanwhile, the Colts offense had the consistency that Denver's lacked. After two punts to start the game, Indianapolis' next five possessions ended in three touchdowns, a field-goal attempt and an interception that was equal to a punt. Those drives were the precursors to the 13-play, 54-yard death march that consumed eight minutes, 14 seconds of the fourth quarter and effectively ended the Broncos' hopes of a comeback.
"We didn't play our best team ball," defensive end DeMarcus Ware said.
"I can't put my finger on it. I just think that guys have got to play better. And each team -- offense, defense, special teams -- has got to find a way to make those big plays in some key situations, and we didn't."
And now, a look back at how the final Three Keys of the 2014 season turned out:
- KEEP THE COLTS DEFENSE OFF-BALANCE.**
Indianapolis conceded some deep opportunities to Manning and the Broncos' passing game, but they all ended in incompletions. That allowed the safeties and linebackers to concentrate on short and intermediate routes, and contributed to one tackler after another meeting Broncos receivers as or just after the football arrived.
Manning pointed to a pair of deep opportunities to Emmanuel Sanders that could have been touchdowns had the passes been completed.
"I know I had two to Emmanuel where I thought he was open. I thought I could hit him and I just overthrew him a little bit. So those were two in particular I'd like to have back," Manning said.
"And then some other ones, yeah I possibly could have, probably should have gone to a shorter throw."
In the second half, most of Manning's throws were short, but coverage was tight as the Colts continued to take away those routes, making yardage after the catch difficult, if not impossible, to amass.
Even though Manning completed 10 of his first 16 attempts after halftime, those completions covered just 49 yards -- an average of 4.9 yards per completion that wasn't even half of his regular-season average of 12.0 yards.
2. WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE.
Technically, the Broncos did, with two interceptions of Andrew Luck. But for all practical purposes, the pickoffs were punts -- deep heaves in long-yardage situations that gave the Broncos the football 37 and 39 yards, respectively, from the Colts' line of scrimmage -- statistics that nearly matched punter Pat McAfee's 37.5-yard net average for the day.
Those two giveaways led to a pair of Connor Barth field goals. Indianapolis' takeaway, a strip-sack fumble of Manning by Jonathan Newsome, led to a touchdown that put the Colts in front to stay. For all practical purposes, the Colts came out ahead in this area -- even with a minus-1 margin.
3. LIMIT ANDREW LUCK'S OPTIONS.
The Broncos were unable to do this, and Luck beat them short, inside, outside -- and, on a crucial third-and-16 conversion, deep for a 32-yard gain down the seam to tight end Coby Fleener. That was the Colts' longest gain of the afternoon and possibly the most important play of the game, as it set up a Luck-to-Hakeem Nicks touchdown pass two plays later that put the Broncos down 11 points and into chase mode.
Luck completed passes to nine different targets -- none of whom was named Reggie Wayne. While most of the gains were short, they were enough to sustain drives, allowing the Colts four possessions of at least eight plays -- four times as many as Denver had.
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Check out photos from the second half of Sunday's game.