INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning watched disbelievingly one pass after another hit the ground Sunday.
Then he demonstrated how an undefeated team survives the perfect storm. After throwing three early TDs, then three inexplicable interceptions, Manning led the Colts on a late TD drive to beat Denver 28-16, breaking NFL records for most consecutive regular-season wins (22) and most wins in a decade (114), plus wrapping up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
“I thought Denver made some plays, and we had some bad luck with bouncing balls there,” Manning said. “We kind of weathered the storm, and the defense did a great job. So it was kind of two different games in terms of momentum, but fortunately we finished on a high note.”
So high it’s previously unreached by any NFL team.
It was quite a day in Indianapolis, which celebrated its 22nd consecutive win. The Colts broke a tie with New England, which set the mark last year, and became the seventh team in league history to start 13-0, including this year’s New Orleans Saints. Indianapolis also was 13-0 in 2005 before losing three of the last four, including a divisional-round playoff game to Pittsburgh.
Indianapolis’ 114th victory of the decade broke a tie with the 1990s San Francisco 49ers and set a franchise record with its 13th consecutive home win.
“It does (feel good),” linebacker Clint Session said of the records. “I’m a part of history right now, so it feels real good. It’s something we can tell our kids and grandkids that we did something no one else had done. It’s definitely a great accomplishment.”
Denver (8-5) also had a record day. Receiver Brandon Marshall broke the league’s single-game record with 21 receptions. He finished with 200 yards and two touchdowns, tying the reception record on a 5-yard TD catch with 9:44 left in the game to make it 21-16 and broke the record on the Broncos’ final play.
“I went to my receiving coach (Adam Gase) before the game and I told him, ’I think this is going to be the best game I’ve ever played.’ Just because of the environment, the situation of playing the Colts,” Marshall said. “I believe big players step up in big games, and this was a big game for us.”
But Manning, who was 20 or 42 for 220 yards, answered Marshall’s fourth-quarter score by hooking up with Dallas Clark on a 1-yard game-sealing TD catch — his third TD of the game — with 2:25 to go.This was easily the strangest win in the Colts’ streak.
Manning led Indianapolis to touchdowns on three of its first four drives, then somehow lost his touch. After completing 10 of 16 throws in the first quarter, Manning went just 6 of 22 over the next two-plus quarters, once missing nine of 10 passes while throwing all three interceptions. He hadn’t throw as many picks in a game since having a career-high six at San Diego in November 2007.
Yet the Colts continually found ways to prevent Denver from taking the lead. They’ve been finding ways to win since an Oct. 27, 2008 loss at Tennessee.
“Well, we did recognize it in the locker room. When you go 22 in a row, that’s difficult to do,” said Jim Caldwell, who took over as coach from the retired Tony Dungy and has the best record for a rookie coach in NFL history. “It’s built on the shoulders of several guys who aren’t even in that locker room, Tony included.”
Dungy, now an analyst for NBC’s Football Night in America, added:“When I first got into coaching, Coach Noll used to talk about three-game winning streaks being hard to do. So 22 straight is something that you think you will never see. It’s a great credit to the entire organization and to the consistency of the players. I am proud to have been a part of it.”
Indianapolis wasted no time in taking charge.
Manning opened with a 5-yard TD pass to Austin Collie, ending a time consuming 80-yard drive. After a Denver three-and-out, Manning connected with Clark for a 10-yard score to make it 14-0.
Manning followed that with a 71-yard drive that ended with Clark catching a 1-yard TD pass to make it 21-0.
Easy, right? Wrong.
Denver ditched the running game and put the ball in Kyle Orton’s hands. And Marshall’s.
Orton went to Marshall on six of the next 12 plays, finally hooking up for a 4-yard score to make it 21-7 at the half.
But with Manning struggling, Denver challenged. The Broncos got a 28-yard field goal from Matt Prater early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10, and Marshall tied the receptions record to make it 21-16.
When Indy stopped the Broncos’ 2-point conversion, Manning finally righted things and preserved The Streak.“When you think about how many we have won these two years, you do take a minute to think about it, and it does kind of hit you — that’s a bunch,” he said. “This was a tough team. This was a great mental challenge.”