INDIANAPOLIS –For a second consecutive week, the Broncos were held back by their own mistakes. If you make them against the now 0-7 Jacksonville Jaguars, they're inconsequential. If you commit them against an Indianapolis Colts team that has won 14 of its last 18 regular-season games, they'll cost you dearly.
This was the most inexorable truth from the Broncos' first regular-season loss in a calendar year. Denver committed twice as many penalties for 51 more yards than the Colts, had three turnovers to the Colts' one, and saw Indianapolis turn the troika of giveaways into 10 points, with another in goal-to-go directly costing the Broncos seven.
The details that will be disseminated from the film over the next few days matter, but the bottom line is inescapable: make that many mistakes, and an undefeated start and a 17-game regular-season winning streak sails away.
1. IF THE COLTS' CORNERS PRESS, THEN ADAPT.
What Indianapolis did was no surprise; they combined a potent pass rush with cornerbacks that went heavy on contact and disruption near the line of scrimmage to try and disrupt the Broncos' timing. The way around this is to connect on enough long passes to expose the dark side of this tactical gamble.
"That's what they do. That's the type of team that they are and they did a good job with it," said wide receiver Wes Welker. "We have to take advantage of that and make them pay when they do that."
The Broncos attempted this during the second and third quarters, but struggled, and at one stretch, the Broncos gained just 18 yards from 15 pass plays – which included a pair of sacks and five completions in 13 attempts.
But late in the third quarter, with the Colts hamstrung after an injury to cornerback Darius Butler, fortunes changed, and Manning and the offense heated up. He completed 17 of his last 27 passes, averaging 15.4 yards per completion and 9.7 yards per attempt, and led the Broncos to scores on four of five possessions – which would have been five of five if not for Ronnie Hillman's goal-to-go fumble. Manning had seven completions of at least 20 yards on Sunday; six game in the fourth quarter.
In the end, Manning averaged 13.3 yards per completion – his highest figure since a 17.1-yard average in Week 1 that was bolstered by Thomas' 78-yard, fourth-quarter catch-and-run. Had it not been for breakdowns in the run game and in pass protection, the Broncos' deep work against the Colts' aggressive cornerbacks might have been enough to win.
2. DON'T LET THE COLTS CHEW THE CLOCK.
The Colts held the time-of-possession advantage, but showed on their first series that the notion of establishing a deliberate tempo meant little to them, snapping the football three times in 78 seconds, even though the clock was running throughout.
When Indianapolis wanted to slow the game down, the defense wouldn't allow it. After Adam Vinatieri hit a 52-yard field goal with 12:59 left in regulation, the next four picked up just 11 yards from scrimmage. From an in-play execution standpoint, the defense did its job; from a penalty standpoint, it failed, because two of those four drives saw first downs handed to the Colts via a holding penalty and a roughing-the-passer infraction, respectively.
To its credit, the defense stiffened and did its part to help the Broncos nearly complete what would have been their biggest fourth-quarter comeback in 30 years.
3. PICK UP THE PASS RUSHERS.
The Broncos' issues in pass protection were crucial Sunday, as they led to a safety, an interception and, by extension from both, 12 points that helped make the difference in the game.
Manning found himself under siege more often Sunday than at any point this season. In previous games, Manning had been hit once per 17.5 pass plays, and never more than once every 6.43 pass plays, against Baltimore in Week 1. Sunday, he was hit once every 5.3 pass plays.
Much of the Colts' work came from the outside. Robert Mathis beat left tackle Chris Clark for two sacks, and pressure from Erik Walden, who burst inside of Julius Thomas, led to the interception off Manning that torpedoed the Broncos' momentum with 6:59 remaining.