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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (0-0) at Denver (0-0)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Peyton Manning has accomplished quite a bit in his spectacular NFL career but the one thing he hasn't done is beat his old team.
Manning will get another chance to do exactly that when the five-time MVP and his Denver Broncos open the season by hosting Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts on "Sunday Night Football."
Manning, of course, was released by the Colts on March 7, 2012 and upon his exit, Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay made the no-brainer of a decision to announce that no Colt would ever wear the No. 18 again.
The divorce was hardly acrimonious and understood by both sides. Manning was attempting to recover from four different surgical procedures on his neck, and the Colts were focused on their future and Luck.
"(Manning) said, 'You've got to take Andrew (Luck),' (in the 2012 draft)" Irsay recalled during an interview with USA TODAY Sports. "'You have to. You're crazy if you don't.'"
Indianapolis was not bipolar and did draft Luck with the No. 1 overall pick after moving on from Manning, who subsequently signed with the Broncos after recording a 141-67 regular-season record for the Colts, passing for 54,828 yards with 399 touchdowns and a 94.9 passer rating as well as guiding Indy to the playoffs 11 times, including a victory in Super Bowl XLI.
Manning hasn't slowed down a bit in the Rockies, leading the Broncos to two straight AFC West crowns and a conference championship last season while earning his record fifth MVP award.
"To be honest, even since Day 1 here, it hasn't been an issue," Luck said of the comparisons between he and Manning. "I never came in saying, 'Oh, I have to replace a legend, one of the greatest of all-time.' Professional sports people, they come and they go. Someone's going to replace me eventually, hopefully later rather than sooner."
Denver was always going to be a serious threat to get back to the big game as long as the 38-year-old Manning returned for the 2014 season, but by "winning" free agency, the Broncos have seemingly lapped an AFC field they were already dominating.
John Elway's handiwork in free agency resulted in a haul which not only placed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the Rocky Mountains but also high-profile defensive targets like pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib and ascending young safety T.J. Ward.
Luck and the Colts, meanwhile, finished the 2013 campaign with an 11-5 record and their first AFC South Division Title since Manning was still leading things back in 2010.
With Luck, the AFC's rising star at the quarterback position, running the offense, Indianapolis projects to be able to hold down the fort again in what is shaping up as a mediocre division. That said, things haven't gone all that smoothly for the Colts thus far.
The biggest blows came in the offseason and started at the top. Irsay had his driver's license suspended one year after a March arrest for driving while intoxicated and was subsequently suspended six games by the NFL and fined $500,000 for his indiscretions.
"Business as usual," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "Mr. Irsay is family. We have his back."
On the field, Indianapolis suffered quite a blow when its top pass rusher, Robert Mathis, was suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the NFL's performance- enhancing drugs policy.
Meanwhile, the team has already suffered two season-ending injuries to potential contributors in running back Vick Ballard (Achilles') and offensive guard Donald Thomas (quad).
The Broncos lead the all-time series by an 11-9 margin but have dropped five straight, although 80 percent of that damage was done while Manning was leading the Colts.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Luck has led the Colts to back-to-back 11-win seasons since taking over for Manning in the Heartland and also helped the Colts overcome a 28-point deficit en route to a stunning 45-44 win over Kansas City in the wild-card round last year.
The young gunslinger, however, is about to take aim again at the one guy who has forgotten more than the upstart has ever known. Manning set NFL records last season with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards before a disappointing 43-8 loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl.
Denver's first loss in 2013 came in Manning's return to Indianapolis, a 39-33 setback on Oct. 20 when Luck threw for 228 yards and three TDs, and the Colts defense forced four turnovers and recorded a safety.
"They've got a lot of players who can play football, but I think we've got a lot of guys who can play football as well," Luck said. "It should be a great test and a great matchup."
"I am tired of talking, and I am looking forward to playing some real football," Manning countered. "We're playing a really good football team, a playoff team, and it's going to be a challenge."
The Broncos obviously have quite an array of offensive weapons and Sanders, a free agent pickup from Pittsburgh, will be asked to hit the ground running and help replace the production of the departed Eric Decker, who signed with the New York Jets after hauling in 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Meanwhile, slot star Wes Welker will be suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
"A lot of people are going to have to step up and raise their play," Manning said when discussing Welker's loss. "When you don't have one of your best players, a guy who is one of your top contributors, I think it falls on more than just one person. That's our challenge."
On the other side of the football Elway really fortified Jack Del Rio's defense by adding Ware, Talib and Ward along with first-round cornerback Bradley Roby.
Of the four keep an eye on Ware, one of this generation's best pure pass rushers, who could prove reborn opposite fellow rushing stalwart Von Miller, who is returning after an injury-plagued and suspension-filled 2013.
To be a true Super Bowl contender, the Colts will need something more from disappointing running back Trent Richardson, who was acquired from Cleveland last September for a first-round pick.
"A thousand (yards) is not the goal," Richardson told the Indianapolis Star. "For me, it's personal. I'm going to keep it to myself. But a thousand is not it for me. It's higher. I can't wait to be involved in the passing game, even if it's just pass blocking. I'm trying to be a three-down back."
Veteran receiver Hakeem Nicks arrived in free agency to give Luck another proven producer alongside Reggie Wayne, who is returning from a torn ACL, and the emerging TY Hilton.
Defensively, the Colts allowed a mind-numbing 384 rushing yards during two games in the postseason a year ago so adding beef up front was of paramount importance.
Arthur Jones, a 315-pound base defensive end, was brought in from Baltimore to help plug some of the holes as was veteran run-stuffing linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.
These two teams look destined for playoff berths and division titles despite various suspension obstacles.
For right now, Denver is the one which looks like its ahead of the curve due to all the talent upgrades on the defensive side. That should be enough to get Manning over the hump against his former team especially at home where Denver has won 13 of its past 14 openers.
"Season opener, it doesn't get much bigger than this except for the postseason," Manning said. "I've always said that opening day is a playoff- type atmosphere."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 37, Colts 27
09/04 11:41:06 ET