With the Divisional round of the playoffs now history, it’s time to acknowledge the “Horseshoe Heroes” against the Denver Broncos. These are players that went above and beyond their positional requirements and delivered an exceptional performance, in a 24-13 upset victory:
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass against the Denver Broncos in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Colts defeated the Broncos 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Luck: Of all the stars on the field Sunday evening, it was Andrew Luck whose star perhaps shined the brightest. Significantly outplaying his Colts’ future Hall of Fame predecessor in Peyton Manning, Luck was 27 for 43 for 265 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (which were more like short punts on deep 3rd down throws). While his passer rating was just 76.2, namely because of the aforementioned interceptions, he was nothing short of brilliant for most of the day.
In truth, Luck was the complete package on Suday. He ran with his legs, flashed the strength of his arm, and even showed some soft touch on a long second half Coby Fleener completion that he masterfully dropped into tight coverage.
Defense: The Colts’ defense was dominant on Sunday. While Peyton Manning was obviously not quite right, the defense played an all-around great game in their own right. Against one of the league’s most potent offenses, they allowed only 1 touchdown and held them to just 13 offensive points.
In the first half, the secondary dared Manning to beat them deep, while taking away all yards after the catch (YAC) opportunities on short throws by making clean tackles.
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) lands on the ground after being unable to make a catch against Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darius Butler (20) during the second quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Modeling a blueprint previously laid out by the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl, the Colts secondary deployed press coverage, beating the Broncos wide receivers physically up at the line of scrimmage, clogging up the middle of the field, and forcing Manning to either throw deep or to the sideline.
Among their defensive standouts was cornerback Vontae Davis, who was blanketed on Broncos’ receivers all game. The All-Pro caliber cornerback was targeted 11 times in coverage, but only allowed 5 receptions for 21 receiving yards and an opposing passer rating of 52.5 per ProFootballFocus (subscription). Davis nearly had two interceptions too on the afternoon, although he couldn’t quite get his feet down in the end zone late in the 1st half and then simply dropped another one in the final minutes of the game.
Other noteworthy performances were Jonathan Newsome‘s early 2nd quarter strip-sack on Manning that the Colts defense recovered and scored on a Dwayne Allen 3-yard touchdown reception on the ensuing drive. Newsome finished with 3 tackles (2 solo) and 1 sack.
Another notable standout, D’Qwell Jackson finished with 11 tackles, including 10 solo tackles, as he continues to be a tackling machine on the season. According to ProFootballFocus, he had a +2.2 grade on the evening, including a surprising +1.3 grade in pass coverage.
Lastly, Arthur Jones provided a tremendous lift in the trenches, as it appears his ankle is now finally healthy. Jones finished with just 3 tackles (2 solo), but it looked like he was a serious presence inside against the run.
Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson (34) against the Cincinnati Bengals during the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Trent Richardson: The Colts 3rd-year running back was surprisingly declared inactive before the start of Sunday’s game. It was reportedly due to a weight issue, and it may have been the last straw for Trent Richardson in a Colts’ uniform.
The once highly regarded running back has been a dud in a Colts’ uniform since being acquired in a trade last season, having been largely ineffective carrying the football. On the season, he had 159 carries for 519 rushing yards, resulting in a mediocre 3.3 yards per carry.
It’s one thing to be demoted, but it’s another thing to be declared inactive entirely this time of year. Instead of Richardson, the Colts had running back Michael Hill, a player signed off the street earlier this week, as their listed 3rd running back. Even with Richardson’s great familiarity with the playbook and offensive system, the team elected to go with the freshly signed Hill, which really says a lot in itself.
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts safety LaRon Landry (30) dives to tackle Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) in the second half in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Colts defeated the Broncos 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
4th and 1 tackling: For as great as the defense was for much of the game, their 4th and 1 tackling on C.J. Anderson late in the 3rd quarter was nothing short of atrocious.
On 4th and 1, Manning handed the ball off to Anderson, who was promptly met by Cory Redding in his own backfield. Noticeably slowed down, but somehow eluding Redding, Anderson then juked past Bjoern Werner and proceeded to break through LaRon Landry‘s arm tackle and was able to extend the Broncos’ drive by getting the 1st down. It should be in a “How Not To Tackle” learning tutorial and caused head coach Chuck Pagano to subsequently slam down his headset in frustration:
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (80) is pushed out of bounds by Indianapolis Colts free safety LaRon Landry (30) and strong safety Mike Adams (29) in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
LaRon Landry: Speaking of Landry, he was once again brutal in pass coverage against the Broncos this year. Despite playing against Peyton Manning and a prolific passing attack, the team elected to start Landry in place of the more coverage savvy Sergio Brown at safety.
Landry was targeted early and often, allowing the Broncos’ only touchdown of the day in coverage on their opening drive. On the game, he was targeted 5 times and allowed 4 receptions for 40 receiving yards and the touchdown, giving Manning a passer rating of 139.6 when targeted per ProFootballFocus.
In his two games against Denver this season, Landry was targeted a combined 9 times for an allowed 8 receptions for 99 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. Perhaps the Broncos’ greatest offensive mistake was not targeting Landry in coverage more often after their opening drive.
Adam Vinatieri: Regarded as arguably the greatest clutch kicker in NFL postseason history, Adam Vinatieri had a rare bad miss on Sunday. In what has been perhaps his best overall season at age 42, Vinatieri has missed only two field goals on the season. Yet yesterday, he inexplicably had one of them. With 4:38 left in the 2nd quarter, Vinatieri’s 44-yard long kick went wide right, as it would’ve put the Colts up two scores. Against a Broncos’ offense, where normally a team needs all the points they can get, it appeared to be an ominous sign heading into the second half.
Fortunately for Vinatieri, it didn’t end up costing the Colts, and he redeemed himself a bit with a 30-yard field goal with 4:06 left in the 4th quarter that effectively iced the game. Still, the Colts will need to be close to perfect next weekend against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, which means they can’t afford many field goal misses if at all.
Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri (4) and punter Pat McAfee (1) during the game against the against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports