As he had for the prior two months, Peyton Manning looked like a shell of his recent and former self, missing long passes all day long. He did throw one touchdown pass, but his Indy predecessor, Andrew Luck, threw two, and the Colts have earned a trip to Foxboro to take on the Patriots in the AFC title game.
Questions will swirl about Manning's future, and that of John Fox.
Before the game, it was suggested by Jay Glazer that another postseason dud might cause head(s) to roll at Dove Valley - maybe Fox's, or perhaps Jack Del Rio's.
Perhaps Manning has an injury from which he can recover in time for next season. If not, it's hard to imagine Fox getting fired, and the offense getting turned over to Brock Osweiler. But there will be plenty of time to consider those possibilities.
Denver forced Indy into an opening three-and-out, and it appeared the Colts would return the favor. But Arthur Jones went after Manning's legs, drawing a 15-yard personal foul, giving the Broncos new life. They took full advantage, as Manning completed a 32-yard pass to Julius Thomas and a one-yard corner fade to Demaryius Thomas for a quick 7-0 lead. But that would be about it for Denver offensive highlights.
After an exchange of punts, Luck and T.Y. Hilton torched Aqib Talib on a pair of long completions, and the Colts knotted the score just after the start of the second quarter. Daniel Herron took care of the last 15 yards with three rushes, including a six-yard touchdown.
A completion to Sanders and run by Ronnie Hillman brough Denver just across midfield, but Jonathan Newsome easily beat Ryan Clady on 3rd-and-12 for a quick strip-sack of Manning. That put the Colts in business at the Denver 41, and eight plays later, Indy was up 14-7.
Talib was called for holding in the end zone on a third down from the six, and then Luck hit Dwayne Allen for a three-yard touchdown pass.
On Denver's next possession, Manning missed Sanders on a pair of deep throws, and Britton Colquitt uncorked one of his worst punts in a season of awful punts, a net-30-yarder. However, Adam Vinatieri bailed Colquitt out by pushing his 44-yarder wide left.
The NFL's highest paid punter redeemed himself by pinning Indy at their three-yard line with his next kick. Facing a 3rd-and-12, Luck threw up something of a prayer, and Bradley Roby gladly accepted the interception just shy of midfield.
Manning passed Denver into FG range with a completion to Sanders, but another pair of deep incompletions left the Broncos to settle for a 45-yarder from Barth, drawing to within 14-10 at halftime.
Opening the second half, Peyton eschewed a seemingly easy third-down conversion run for a sideline throw to Sanders, but the wideout was unable to get his feet down inbounds.
Doing what his Manning could not, Luck converted a pair of long third downs in the subsequent minutes, stretching Indy's lead to 21-10 with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks.
Another Denver three-and-out followed, but for a moment, it appeared the Broncos would retain possession. For the second time in the game, punt returner Josh Cribbs was hit promptly by Omar Bolden, and this time, the ball came loose. But while the play was ruled a fumble and Denver recovery on the field, a replay review overturned the call, putting Cribbs down by contact.
However, the defense got the ball back just two minutes later, as Rahim Moore intercepted another third-and-long bomb from Luck, giving Denver possession at its own 24.
With the third quarter winding down, C.J. Anderson saved the day two times, at least momentarily. He first dragged Orlando Franklin away from a potential 15-yard infraction, and then broke several tackles on fourth down to turn a loss of yardage into a dazzling seven-yard conversion. Again, though, Manning was unable to deliver another first down, and Barth's 41-yarder drew Denver to within 21-13.
It felt like the smallest of victories, and it would prove to be. After another net-30-yard punt from Colquitt, Indy inched its way to a 13-play, 54-yard drive, and Vinatieri was good from 30, restoring the Colts' 11-point lead at 24-13.
While the Broncos still had a mathematical chance at that point, their season appeared over, and moments later, it was. Anderson came up inches short on a fourth-and-eight, and the Colts ran the clock down to the two-minute warning.
Denver's season ended with a 24-yard completion from Manning to Demaryius Thomas.
That's kind of what I've said all along. But I can't answer every what-if circumstance. What if you're not as healthy? What if certain coaches leave? I can't answer every what-if situation. I think I'll have to take some time to see how I feel, see how I feel physically.
Jason Fitzgerald dives into Denver's caponomic situation for the 2015 offseason.