By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
The wait is nearly over.
Some six months after the NFL schedule was released and the nation learned the date the Denver Broncos would visit the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning will make his homecoming tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
A circus atmosphere developed in the lead-up to this contest with comments made to a USA Today reporter by Colts owner Jim Irsay blowing up into a national controversy. And the emotional aspect of Manning's return is certain to be a major part of NBC's broadcast.
But head coach Chuck Pagano said he's focused on the same areas with his team as any other week.
"The obvious is the obvious," Pagano said, referring to the Manning angle. "It is what it is. We've got things to clean up. So we're going back to work."
Indianapolis (4-2) is coming off a disappointing 19-9 loss at San Diego in which the offense failed to score a touchdown for the first time this season.
The Colts have never lost back-to-back games with second-year quarterback Andrew Luck under center. But Denver (6-0) hasn't lost a game this year and has won 17 straight regular-season contests overall.
Manning is on pace to set single-season records for passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating, and the Broncos lead the league with an average of 44.2 points per game.
"They're number one across the board in every offensive category," Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. "It will be a huge task. We just have to do our job. Don't do anything (extra). You don't have to be a world-beater, just do your job."
Still, Indianapolis can't escape the elephant in the room. Especially for the handful of players who have shared a locker room before with No. 18.
Mathis practiced against Manning every day for eight years, but he never had a chance to hit him. Tonight, it will be one of the defense's chief goals.
"He's a quarterback so that's my job," Mathis said of taking a crack at the four-time NFL MVP. "I aim to do it."
Getting pressure on Manning seems to be the best chance of disrupting his record-setting rhythm. The Jacksonville Jaguars hit the quarterback repeatedly early in last week's game and forced an uncharcteristic three turnovers.
But Manning still finished with 295 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 35-19 victory.
"He's a good quarterback," Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "He gets rid of the ball. He knows what (defense) you're in. It's like playing an offensive coordinator, but he's got an arm. We got a tough task ahead of us, but we're up for it."
Broncos head coach John Fox feels his team has plenty on its plate, as well.
He gives high marks to Luck — whom he coached last year in the Pro Bowl — and his receiving crew, but he also sees a challenge lining up against Indianapolis' defense.
"Defensively, you've got Mathis, who we also had in the Pro Bowl, a terrific young talent as well as person, leading the league in sacks," Fox said. "I think the secondary's playing really well, tight coverage and doing an outstanding job. I think Chuck, they play very hard for him. They're well-coached, and that's why they're 4-2."
Despite all the kind words in recent days, there has been a bit of an edge this week. Denver columnists — and more than a few members of the national media — reacted strongly when Irsay's comments were interpreted as a slight against Manning.
The owner expressed frustration with winning a single Super Bowl between 1998 and 2011 while Manning was on the roster and the team made 11 playoff appearances. He later clarified his statements, saying they were not directed at the quarterback and simply reflected a change in the model of the organization.
But the damage already was done.
Manning stayed above the controversy, but his answer was telling when asked if he could discuss his current relationship with Irsay.
"No," he said. "I can't, and I won't."
The Colts plan a video tribute to Manning before the game, and there are sure to be split allegiances in the stands. Pagano said he's confident Indianapolis' 12th man ultimately will line up behind the horseshoe, and many players echoed that sentiment.
Once the clock starts, however, it will be up to the Colts' defense to keep Manning from adding another chapter to his Indianapolis lore. Safety LaRon Landry and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman will be healthy and in the lineup, giving the Colts their full complement of defensive starters for the first time this season.
They'll need every advantage they can get against the man Irsay called "the most loved Colt" of the 30-year Indianapolis era.
"There's nothing that we will do or anything that anybody else has done that he has not seen," Pagano said. "He's unbelievable at the line of scrimmage of previewing the defense, if you will, all those type of things. So it's going to be difficult, but it's exciting. It's going to be a great challenge for our team and our guys. He's a special player."