It only seems like the Broncos and Colts have had this date arranged since the dawn of the 2014 season. But next Sunday's divisional duel, dripping with drama, wasn't even possible until the No. 6 seed Ravens set it up by ousting the Steelers 30-17 in the first AFC wild-card game this weekend, which ensured Sunday's winner would advance to Denver.
Indianapolis' 26-10 romp over the Bengals sealed the pairing, a rematch of a thrilling Week 1 clash in which the Broncos held off the surging Colts for a 31-24 win when Bradley Roby saved the game with a fourth-down deflection of a pass intended for Reggie Wayne. Roby's clinching breakup capped a stellar debut that included his third-quarter, third-and-goal stop of Colts wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, which set up a fourth-down stand one play later that was the difference in a 7-point win.
The blossoming of the Broncos secondary since that night is just one of many ways in which these teams are different 18 weeks later, and is among the many zesty storylines for the game.
Of course, that list begins with Peyton Manning facing his former team for the third time, and how the Broncos' offense has evolved from an aerial-centric one into an balanced, deliberate attack. In the last six games of the 2014 season, the Broncos began grinding out drives, while improving on the points-per-possession efficiency established in the first 10 games. That could be crucial against a Colts defense that has been in the bottom half of the league in rushing yardage per game, per carry and first-down rate.
But Andrew Luck's continued development will also be a massive plotline to consider. The third-year quarterback finished the 2014 season with a league-leading 40 touchdown passes and has firmly arrived in the game's elite.
"He's one of those quarterbacks you don't want to go against, but you want to get pressure on him and make him one-dimensional," said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who had 1.5 sacks of Luck in the regular-season opener.
One matchup that jumps out involves the game's best young quarterback and his receivers against a cornerback corps that includes two Pro Bowlers -- Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib -- and with Roby delivering steady play, is arguably the best trio in the league right now.
Indianapolis' receivers will provide a stern test for them.
T.Y. Hilton remains Luck's primary target and there's ample reason why he's Pro Bowl-bound; he capped an explosive 1,345-yard season with 103 yards on six receptions against the Bengals. But Luck will spread the football around to others -- and not just to Wayne and Nicks.
Running back Daniel "Boom" Herron racked up 85 yards on 10 receptions in addition to his 56 yards on 12 carries against Cincinnati on Sunday. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen each caught eight touchdown receptions in the regular season as they emerged as potent red-zone threats. And rookie Donte Moncrief built on the flashes of potential he showed in the regular season, hauling in a key 36-yard touchdown pass against the Bengals on Sunday. The long-term potential of Moncrief working opposite Hilton is boundless.
See the best moments captured in the Broncos' win over the Colts on Sunday night.
The season-long struggles of the Colts' ground game are well-documented, and the result is an offense more skewed toward the pass than any other in this year's postseason.
Since 1950, only 14 playoff teams have run the football less often than the Colts -- a group that includes last year's New Orleans Saints, who called runs on just 36.24 percent of their snaps, according to research through Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Those teams were a combined 9-14 in the postseason, but the group includes two recent conference champions (the 2008 Cardinals and 2009 Colts) that lost in the Super Bowl. The recent success of those two teams shows that offensive imbalance does not eliminate a team from Super Bowl contention -- if it has an elite quarterback and just enough of a ground game to be a viable change-of-pace threat.
That was the case for the '08 Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner with some solid running from Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, and the '09 Colts, led by Manning with a change of pace from Joseph Addai. It's also true for these Colts, with the ground threat provided by Luck himself and the emerging Herron, whose 27-yard run on the sixth play of Sunday's win over Cincinnati set up his 2-yard touchdown run four plays later.
Herron accounted for 58 of the 71 yards on the game-opening scoring march, and has averaged 85.3 yards from scrimmage and 4.90 yards per carry in the last seven weeks. But in that span, he's lost three fumbles, and with a fumble rate of one every 32.3 touches in that seven-week run, you can expect the Broncos to try and strip the football from Herron's grasp at every opportunity.
On defense, the Colts steadily improved, gradually answering the questions about where the pass rush would originate with Robert Mathis out for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon. Defensive lineman Cory Redding led the Colts with 22 quarterback hurries (according to ProFootballFocus.com), with outside linebacker Bjoern Werner right behind him with 18 hurries.
But the strength is in the secondary. Safety Mike Adams, who left the Broncos in free agency last offseason, had a solid campaign, and showed improved range in coverage in his first year as a Colt, and cornerback Vontae Davis earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
"They've got playmakers all over the field," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "They've got blitzes that they disguise well, and we've got to be able to pick that up."
INDIANAPOLIS BY THE NUMBERS
- Points per game: 28.63, 6th
- Yards per game: 406.63, 3rd
- Yards per play: 5.89, 7th
- Points per drive (per FootballOutsiders.com): 2.27, 7th
- Giveaways: 31, T-29th
- First-down rate: One every 3.34 plays, 9th
- Third-down conversion rate: 41.01 percent, 13th
- Yards per game: 305.88, 1st
- Yards per pass play: 7.09, 5th
- Percentage of plays that are pass plays: 62.44 percent, 6th
- Sack rate: One every 23.79 pass plays, 3rd
- Touchdown rate: One every 16.43 pass plays, 4th
- Quarterback hit rate: One per 6.83 pass plays, 20th
- First-down rate: One per 2.75 pass plays, 6th
- Drop rate (per STATS, Inc.):One per 11.25 opportunities, 31st
- Yards after catch per reception (per STATS, Inc.): 5.97, 7th
- Yards per game: 100.75, 22nd
- Yards per rush: 3.89, 25th
- Percentage of plays that are runs: 37.56 percent, 27th
- First-down rate: One every 5.19 carries, 25th
- Touchdown rate: One every 46.11 carries, 24th
- Points allowed per game: 23.06, 19th
- Yards allowed per game: 342.69, 11th
- Yards allowed per play: 5.44, 19th
- Points allowed per drive (per FootballOutsiders.com): 1.72, 11th
- Takeaways: 26, T-10th
- First-down rate allowed: One every 3.62 plays, 15th
- Third-down conversion rate allowed: 33.33 percent, 2nd
- Yards allowed per game: 229.31, 12th
- Yards allowed per pass play: 6.28, 17th
- Sack rate: One per 14.24 pass plays, 9th
- Interception rate: One per 45.25 pass plays, 21st
- Touchdown rate allowed: One every 21.63 pass plays, 22nd
- First-down rate allowed: One per 3.33 pass plays, 3rd
- Yards allowed per game: 113.38, 18th
- Yards allowed per rush: 4.29, 23rd
- First-down rate allowed: One every 4.11 carries, 27th
- Touchdown rate allowed: One every 30.21 carries, 25th
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