The obvious storyline is Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck. Old vs. new. The former Indianapolis Colts franchise quarterback vs. the current Indianapolis Colts franchise quarterback. The Sheriff vs. the Young Gun.
But that shouldn't be the overwhelming storyline, according to Manning, saying it's a story that's been told before. "I think we covered that," he said. "I've been here in Denver for three years, [and this is] third time we've played them."
Luck agreed. DenverBroncos.com analyst Andrew Mason notes -
Broncos vs. Colts injury report
The Denver Broncos are looking as healthy as can be expected for an NFL team heading into their first playoff game. There's a 50/50 chance Brandon Marshall will play on Sunday.
"As fans, we love storylines," Luck said. "It seems to be the nature (of) the sport culture today, so be it."
But Manning doesn't face Luck. He faces the Colts' defense, which is the league's second-best on third downs. Luck won't duel with Manning; he'll tangle with Denver's defense, which is the league's second-best in yardage per play allowed.
Mason also writes how the Broncos offense has actually improved over the course of the final six weeks of the season (29.2 points per game) compared to the first 10 (28.4 ppg), despite another (false) storyline that Manning might be in decline.
In other words, these are two teams on the rise - the Colts and Broncos have evolved as the 2014 season has moved along, and this AFC matchup is so much bigger than a one-on-one show between two quarterbacks, no matter how intriguing the storyline is.
Colts QB Andrew Luck
The Broncos defense will be tasked with shutting down a quarterback who just showed he was capable of this.
Indeed, that's a tall task. Andrew Luck has been the carrying force behind the Colts' success to date, and that was true in his last playoff game as well. Luck is mobile, smart, and has a strong arm - all the tools. I'll hold off on breaking him down too in-depth, since our own Bronco Mike will be back to scout the Colts quarterback soon, but suffice it to say, the Colts only go as far as Luck can take them.
He can take them pretty far.
Broncos RB C.J. Anderson
The focal point of the Broncos offense has switched from a Peyton Manning-led passing attack to a C.J. Anderson-led running one. Anderson totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2014, which is remarkable considering he had a total of 39 snaps through the first eight weeks of the season (he had 44 in Week 10 alone). Anderson has been a revelation for the Broncos down the stretch, breaking tackles, finding the end zone, and taking all the pressure off Peyton. By PFF standards, he graded green (+1.0 or better) in seven of his last eight games in 2014, and he finished 4th in overall running back grade and 3rd when graded strictly on rushing ability. And that's using cumulative grades - if you average those scores using only the second half of the season (when Anderson's role increased), Anderson stands far above the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Le'Veon Bell this season.
Colts S LaRon Landry
Landry was suspended four games this year for PED use, and after his NFL punishment was served, the Colts benched him for good measure. In came Sergio Brown, and Landry's role changed. He did what the Colts asked of him, but his focus was and always will be in run defense.
Perhaps that's why the Colts have decided to name Landry the starter again, knowing the Broncos and C.J. Anderson are coming to town, but Landry was one of the Colts defense's lowest-graded defenders in the playoffs last Sunday. Even in run defense, his strength, he graded a red -1,8 against the run. This is the same player who Peyton Manning and Julius Thomas abused in Week One, so if they can attack Landry successfully in either the run or the pass, it could be a long day for the Colts' new old starting safety.
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Broncos TE Julius Thomas
I just mentioned how Landry got burned by Thomas in these teams' Week One matchup; well, Thomas hasn't exactly been hot of late. Part of that, and perhaps all of it, is due to the ankle injury he sustained in Week 11 against the St. Louis Rams.
But Thomas has been a full participant in practice for some time, and he's been on the field for 50% or more of Denver's snaps in each of the last two weeks. He's due for a breakout. After a week of rest, maybe he can repeat some of that three-touchdown success he had against Indy in Denver's regular season premiere.
Matchups to Watch
Colts offensive line vs. Broncos pass rush
It has been said (we just said it a few paragraphs ago) that the Colts will only go as far as Andrew Luck will take them. Well, Luck will only go as far as his offensive line will take him.
Indy's offensive line has been inconsistent this season, but they're coming off a good game against the Bengals in the playoffs .Stampede Blue notes -
Presumably, the starting offensive line will be the same as last week, with Anthony Castonzo at left tackle (like always),Jack Mewhort at left guard, Khaled Holmes at center, Lance Louis at right guard, andJoe Reitz at right tackle. They played well a week ago, but this week will be a much tougher task.
The tougher task will be handling Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Ware was able to register 1.5 sacks of Luck in Week 1, with Malik Jackson helping him with a half sack and Nate Irving (now on Injured Reserve) contributing another. The Broncos must get pressure on Luck as much as possible, without bringing the blitz when possible, to ensure he doesn't get the time he needs.
Colts special teams vs. Broncos special teams
This is a potential X-factor in this game, an element thought of less that could have a significant impact on the game. The Colts boast All Pro punter Pat McAfee, who excels at both punts and kickoffs (and tackling kick returners) for Indy. That's just where the special teams dominance begins; according to ProFootballFocus, Indy has the top-graded special teams unit in the league (+86.3), a huge advantage over the -6.4 Broncos.
Denver's special teams have been a little shaky down the stretch; this is certainly one matchup to watch Sunday.
The Broncos have the edge in most areas, but leading into this game, the Colts have the edge at quarterback. If Andrew Luck catches fire - which he has been known to do - this could be anyone's game. But the balanced rushing attack and stifling defense the Broncos boast should be enough to give Denver the edge, especially at home where they are 8-0 this season.
Broncos 34, Colts 27
Who do you got, Broncos Country?