At some point in the fourth quarter, waiting for the Denver Bronco rally that never came, the realization dawned about how perversely the tables have turned for Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
On their way to a 24-13 win that wasn't as close as the score indicated, the Colts were doing to Peyton Manning what opposing teams had so long done to him when he was a Colt.
They were making you wonder why the team that had looked so much better in the regular season was losing.
They were making you wonder where the Hall of Fame quarterback had gone.
They were bouncing his team from the playoffs before he had even won a game for the record ninth time.
For the 53 Colts on the current roster, the win will mean only one thing: A pass to Foxborough, Mass., next Sunday for what will surely be a harder game against the New England Patriots to get to the Super Bowl. But for the city of Indianapolis itself, the remarkable rise of new quarterback Andrew Luck will come with the smallest drop of gall for how brutally the Colts subjected his predecessor to yet another playoff heartache.
The excuses this time, it would seem, are different. The Peyton Manning who took the field Sunday in Denver looked like just the battered remnants of the man who took the Broncos to the Super Bowl so spectacularly last year – much less the man who began this season looking almost as promising.
The questions after the game were whether this would be the last game for a legend whose body appears to be falling further and further out of step with his mind. Manning himself could not answer them, saying only that he needed to think about it.
But there would be a symmetry in that, beaten in his last game by the team that he built, beaten in his last game in the circumstances that, in many ways, have become as much a part of his legacy as his martial two-minute drills or maestro-like pre-snap orchestrations behind center.
Of course, there have been good times for Manning in the playoffs. His Colts teams won the Super Bowl in 2006 and lost in the Super Bowl in 2009. And the narrative that quarterbacks lead their teams singlehandedly to Super Bowl titles is woefully simplistic.
But there is no denying that his Broncos are a more talented team than the Colts this year – and by some margin. The Colts defense became the first in National Football League history to allow a 500-yard passer and 200-yard rusher in the same season. Against the best teams, the Colts pass rush looked like scrawny arms Rob Lowe. And Colts No. 1 running back Trent Richardson – the man for whom they traded a No. 1 draft pick last year – has been so ineffective that they benched him Sunday. (His replacement, Daniel "Boom" Herron, was drafted 188 spots below him in the 2012 draft.)
Manning alone cannot account for why his more-talented team was so thoroughly outplayed. The Broncos fearsome pass-rushing duo, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, never got close enough to Luck to even reach out a finger and muss up his neck beard.
But the narrative has played out too many times for Manning's liking – the underdog moves on, Manning stays home.
In this case, it is Luck and the Colts that are moving on, and despite the Colts' many flaws, there is a feeling that Luck has climbed another rung on the Super Bowl ladder. The next, in New England, is likely to be tougher. The Patriots are a tag team operation, with Tom Brady doing the bidding of all things from the diabolical mind of Lord Belichick.
But Sunday, Luck gave Indianapolis fans a taste of truly new era, winning a game his team had no business winning – and certainly not in such convincing fashion. That it came in this game, against this quarterback, made it at once more poignant and more painful.