NFL Preview - Denver (6-0) at Indianapolis (4-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Jim Irsay certainly isn't afraid to stir things up.
The outspoken and often brash Indianapolis Colts owner took aim at his former starting quarterback earlier this week just as Peyton Manning prepares to return to Indianapolis for the first time since his departure before the 2012 season.
The All-Pro will lead his high-powered Denver Broncos against his successor Andrew Luck and the Colts on "Football Night in America."
Manning was released by the Colts on March 7, 2012 and upon his exit, 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 remotely in the Rockies and currently leads the NFL with 2,179 passing yards, 22 touchdowns -- the most ever through the first six games of a season -- and a 128.8 passer rating this year.
Meanwhile, he returns to the Hoosier State in search of a 17th straight regular-season win as Denver's starting QB, something Irsay correctly claims would have been untenable if Peyton stayed with the Colts.
"Circumstances created this decision," Irsay said. "You have to understand there's no way this occurs if he's in Indy. It's just impossible, where our salary cap was. Having him stay at the type of number that he expected and deserved to earn and all those things."
Manning was indeed set to earn a $28 million bonus if he stayed with the Colts. Luck, meanwhile, is still dealing with the rookie salary cap and counts just $5.025 million against the Colts' spending limit.
Irsay should have ended his comments there and welcomed Manning back with open arms but instead took aim at the veteran's so-so postseason resume.
"We've changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these," Irsay said while showing off his Super Bowl XLI championship ring. "(Tom) Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these. Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated.
"You make the playoffs 11 times, and you're out in the first round seven out of 11 times," he continued. "You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this (referring to his ring again)."
"To me, in my opinion, they were disappointing and inappropriate," Broncos coach John Fox said on his weekly Sirius XM radio hit when asked about Irsay's comments. "I mean, Peyton would never say anything. He's too classy to do that. But (the comments) sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me for a guy that has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won division titles, won four MVP awards. I'd be thankful with that one Super Bowl ring because there's a lot of people that don't have one."
Perhaps realizing he went too far, Irsay took to Twitter to try to fend off any criticism.
"Those expressing negatIvity about the concept of building well rounded teams around great QBs 2 achieve Championships have negative agendas," he tweeted.
"My comments meant if we gave Peyton better SP (Special) Teams n (and) Def (defense), we would have won more than 1 Sup/Bowl (Super Bowl), instead of asking Peyton 2do (to do) too much," another Tweet read.
The damage may have already been done, however, and it's clear Irsay has only made things tougher on his team -- which is coming off an uninspired 19-9 loss at San Diego -- even if Manning won't bite at the controversy.
"I've learned that in life you need to be at peace with other people's decisions that affect you that you have no control over," Manning said. "That's good advice I've had over the years and it's certainly served me well in this particular scenario."
Luck completed 18-of-30 passes for 202 yards with an interception against the Chargers while Wayne caught five passes for 88 yards.
"Every loss stings in its own way. Right now, this is the most frustrating loss we've had, because it is fresh on our mind. We'll use it as a learning opportunity. We realize that sitting at 4-2 is a lot better that 1-5, or 2-4," Luck said.
Manning's Broncos, meanwhile, will arrive in Indy having scored 265 points in 2013, the most ever by a team through the first six games of a season. He passed for 295 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Jaguars last week while running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for three scores.
"Knowshon was huge," Manning said of Moreno. "His red-zone running was huge. I thought the running game got going a little bit better in the second half."
The Broncos are 11-8 all-time versus the Colts and 5-5 on the road.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Manning's successor in Indy has won 15 of his first 22 career starts. He guided the Colts to the playoffs as a rookie a year ago and currently has the team in first place in the AFC South.
Luck is good and he is only getting better but comparing him to Manning at this point is laughable. Peyton is perhaps the best regular-season QB of all- time and sports a mind-numbing 82-32 career mark as a starter in Indianapolis.
And he's only improved since leaving.
"I don't play there anymore, but I've continued to communicate and I've enjoyed those times when I see someone from Indiana in a hotel or an 18 Colts jersey out here at practice," Manning said. "There's always a connection."
Manning is as smart as they come, able to survey things at the line of scrimmage and get Denver out of a bad play and into a good one. With Manning in the captain's chair the explosive Broncos can strike you from a million different directions.
If you cover Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, who has an NFL-leading eight TD receptions, is going to get open. If you check both of those difference- makers, Eric Decker may jump up and bite you and if by some miracle, you lock down all the receivers, here comes Julius Thomas, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound runaway locomotive in the open field, who has seven TD receptions.
The fact that Moreno solidified a somewhat shaky running game only adds to Indianapolis' worries on defense.
The Colts have been more than solid on pass defense this season, ranking fifth in the NFL by allowing 205.7 yards per game but this is a test on a different level.
It's conceivable the Indianapolis D, which is also fifth in scoring allowed at 16.3 ppg, will be bolstered by the injury to Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin, who sprained his left knee and ankle against Jacksonville. All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady is already on injured reserve with a foot injury.
That said, Manning has perhaps the quickest release since Dan Marino was in his prime with the Dolphins, rendering the opposition pass rush almost moot.
Luck, on the other hand, will be facing the Broncos' NFL-worst pass defense, which is allowing 337.7 yards per game. Of course, some of that is skewed by the fact Denver's opponents are always behind the 8-ball trying to win a shootout.
Also the Broncos' best defensive player -- linebacker Von Miller -- is scheduled to return after missing the first six games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
"I feel good. I'm in the best shape of my life," Miller, who recorded a franchise-best 18 1/2 sacks a year ago, said. "I feel a lot stronger, quicker, faster."
Luck has never lost back-to-back games and is 6-0 following losses but let's stick with Irsay's "Star Wars" theme here.
It's likely Irsay's big mouth just turned Luck and Co. into Alderaan as the Death Star approaches for its franchise-record ninth consecutive road win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 34, Colts 27
10/17 15:36:23 ET