Plenty will be made of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts counterpart Andrew Luck, the player who usurped Manning’s place as the Colts signal caller, going head-to-head in Sunday’s AFC Divisional round playoff at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
And rightly so, given the gobbles of touchdowns Luck and Manning have thrown and top receivers like Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and the Colts T.Y. Hilton stalking the sidelines for deep, back-breaking plays.
But each defense deserves as much credit and notice as the quarterbacks in this game. And whichever prevails will also face a huge test against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game next week.
Led by an infusion of veterans in the offseason after their debilitating Super Bowl loss to Seattle, the Broncos improved to finish the regular season third in total defense, giving up 305.2 yards and 22.1 points per game.
It’s not as if Denver lacked talent on the defensive side of the ball last year, its just their young group of studs needed a bit more experience and some veterans to play alongside.
Upfront, Denver sends out fourth-year linebacker Von Miller, who avoided trouble off the field to lead the team with 14.0 sacks. Former Cowboy DeMarcus Ware shared some of the pass rushing duties with Miller and tallied 10.0 sacks, and Denver owned the ninth-best pass rush in the league with 41 sacks on the year.
In the secondary, fourth-year cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who’s missed one game in his career, free safety Rahim Moore, and rookie corner Bradley Roby racked up nine total interceptions and 36 passes defended, but its difficult to see how that young core would have grown if it weren’t for veteran Aqib Talib. Coming over from New England, Talib was second on the squad with 17 passes defended and tied Moore with four interceptions.
The Colts will counter with a devastating group of linebackers that figures to terrorize Manning, who’s arm strength looked rather weak in the final month of the season but has likely reloaded with a bye week off.
Just like Denver, Indy had a solid, youthful that needed a little guidance. The Colts went out and signed linebacker D’Qwell Jackson away from Cleveland, and his influence has certainly helped the likes of second-year linebacker Bjoern Werner, third-year Jerrell Freeman, and rookie Jonathan Newsome.
Along with veteran Erik Walden, the Colts starting linebackers totaled 22.0 of the team’s 41 sacks on the year, with Newsome leading the way with 6.5. In last week’s 26-10 Wild Card victory over Cincinnati, the Colts came up with 3.0 sacks and another six quarterback hits to take the Bengals’ Andy Dalton completely out of the game.
Indy’s pass defense finished only 12th overall in the league, but the kind of pressure generated by that solid group of linebackers could spell trouble for Denver. Cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, and safety Mike Adams totaled 40 passes defended and 11 interceptions between them.
So while Manning and Luck garner most of the attention leading up to and during the contest, a defender could very well be the difference maker.
Start Time: 4:35 P.M. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Betting Odds: Denver -7
Over/Under: 54 points
Prediction: Denver over Indianapolis, 31-20