In a 39-33 win over Peyton Manning's previously undefeated Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts said on the field what their owner failed to say in the week leading up to the game.
It was Tuesday that Colts owner Jim Irsay, in an interview with USA Today, expressed disappointment that his team had won only one Super Bowl during Peyton Manning's 14 years in Indianapolis. The comment was more than a little churlish. Manning, after all, became the Indianapolis Colts and led the team to an unparalleled streak of regular-season success. This was not the moment to paint Manning's Colts as underachievers.
Yet on Sunday, the new Colts made Irsay's point for him. The Manning era in Indianapolis was historic, special, unforgettable.
But the new era will be different.
Better? That's hard to say – and hard to imagine. But it's already taking a different path.
From the moment the Colts drafted Manning in 1998, they were all about Manning. In time, running backs became spare parts, and the defense was built solely to play with the leads that Manning would presumably build for them.
All over the field, the Colts were fast, they were skillful, and they played with precision.
On Sunday, Manning got a taste of today's Colts. First, they stuffed the Broncos on two 3rd and 1 plays in the first quarter. Then, they began knocking the Broncos receivers around with tight man coverage. And all over the field, there were hits. Even the Colts' punter laid out Bronco returner Trindon Holliday.
The 33 points the Colts gave up might not seem too impressive. Then again, it was the least the Broncos have scored this season.
When Colts head coach Chuck Pagano came to Indianapolis in 2012, he had one motto: Build the monster. He didn't want a team that was ready to run a track meet. He wanted a team of brawlers.
When his team acquired a blocking fullback this offseason – a yeoman position that the Manning Colts didn't even fill – Pagano reveled in the fact that he finally had a player who "smelled like a fullback." (Presumably sweaty.)
When his team acquired running back Trent Richardson, a punishing runner who had so far failed to live up to expectations in the pro game, Pagano was nearly salivating at the introductory press conference, calling Richardson "a rolling ball of butcher's knives."
With Manning, the Colts were more likely to opt for the scalpel.
Yes, this Colts team has Andrew Luck – Manning's successor at quarterback and universally considered the game's next superstar. And yes, Luck is clearly the best player on this team. But, for better or worse, the team is not built around him. At least, not in that Peyton Manning way.
This team is being built much more in the image of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who paired a rugged quarterback with a fearsome defense to win two Super Bowls. Or perhaps even the vintage New England Patriots, who ground up the Colts on the way to three Super Bowls with a rising young quarterback and a defense that threw heavyweight punches.
Is that a better model for championship football? Not necessarily.
The Green Bay Packers defense certainly didn't strike much fear in opponents on the way to their 2011 Super Bowl win – over those Steelers. Same with the New Orleans Saints in 2010. And the Colts did win a Super Bowl in 2007. Moreover, the new Patriots (who are basically the old Colts) have gotten to two Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012 (though not winning either).
And for the new Colts, Luck can sometimes seem a luxury spare part himself, asked to do the ordinary when he is clearly capable of so much more.
But Sunday had the strange look of traded places. There were the Colts, doing to Manning's Broncos what other teams had often done to Manning's Colts. And somewhere Irsay pointing to the field and saying: That's what I meant.