The numbers and the standings have changed, but heading into this week’s games, they were lined up too perfectly to ignore.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning reached the halfway point of the season with a 5-3 record and 2,404 yards passing.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck reached the halfway point of the season with a 5-3 record and 2,404 yards passing.
Though Manning, the 15-year veteran, and Luck, the rookie out of Stanford, are hardly mirror images, their fates over the past 12 months have been as interconnected as their numbers were entering this week.
And so far, this has all the makings of a win-win situation for both teams and both quarterbacks.
Luck moved the Colts to 6-3 with a 27-10 win over Jacksonville on Thursday.
Colts interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who also worked with Manning when he was a rookie, said Manning was great in his first year and Luck is every bit as good.
“He’s light years ahead of where we thought he would be,” Arians said. “There’s nothing really left to put in the playbook that we haven’t installed, and he’s been extremely good in clutch situations.”
Had the Colts chosen not to part ways with Manning — the quarterback who essentially defined the franchise for a decade and a half — they may still have picked Luck first in the draft. But chances are he’d be watching, not playing.
There’s no crystal ball to tell how that would’ve gone. But installing Luck as the starter is working out just fine.
If the playoffs had begun at the season’s midpoint, the Broncos and Colts would have been matched up for a first-round game. Despite that, despite the winning record and the 10 touchdown passes, Luck only gave himself a ‘C’ when asked for his own midseason grade.
“I think a perfect grade would be if you won every game, didn’t have any incompletions, no interceptions, so we’ll keep working until we get to there,” he said.
Some things he’s doing, however, go well beyond average.
This week, Luck’s jersey was sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he threw for a rookie record 433 yards in a 23-20 win over Miami on Sunday. With that performance, he joined Manning as the only other player to throw for 300-plus yards four times in his first year.
Luck is essentially working with a complex, pro-style offense — and is also asked to pick up the slack for a running game ranked 19th in the league.
Despite the running game, and despite receiver Reggie Wayne standing as Indy’s only “big name” playmaker, the Colts have the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense. Luck has won close games (three-point wins over Miami, Minnesota and Green Bay and an overtime win over Tennessee), has engineered big comebacks (from 21-3 down against the Packers) and has quickly gained the confidence of his teammates.
“He has definitely come in and helped us win games,” Wayne said. “For the offense, he’s put us in good situations to make plays. He’s made some unbelievable throws, especially on the run. He’s used his feet well.”
While Luck has been piling up yards, his quarterback rating was only 79.0, 25th in the NFL, in part because he completed only 56.5 percent of his passes and was averaging an interception per game. The Colts, meanwhile, still have two games left against AFC South leader Houston and one game at New England.
Still, with a rookie quarterback and coming off a 2-14 season, there weren’t many people picking the Colts as playoff contenders in 2012.
Denver’s schedule was frontloaded — Houston, New England, Atlanta and Pittsburgh were among the first five opponents. Because of that, and because Manning was coming off injury and starting with a new team, expectations weren’t that high for early in the season.
But after a 2-3 start, the Broncos have won three straight. It’s an understatement to say Manning has been rounding into form. He has completed nearly 76 percent of his passes over the last five games. He leads the league in passer rating (108.6) and has 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He says he always expected to improve as the season wore on.
“I think you never stop learning,” Manning said. “Eight games and I’m in my 15th year, you’re still learning, but I think we’re working to try to get on the same page and trying to be more productive each week than we were the week before.”
When he chose Denver, Manning’s ability to bounce back from his injury was every bit as big an unknown as how Luck would respond to his first year in the NFL. As the season has gone on and the Broncos offense has risen to the top of the AFC West behind the league’s fourth-ranked passing game, questions about Manning’s arm strength have all but disappeared.
The chemistry Manning built with Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark in Indianapolis is slowly seeping into the offense in Denver, where Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Joel Dreessen are getting the hang of doing things Manning’s way.
“I think the more we get on the same page, the more we understand nonverbal cues, certain routes and how to read defenses,” said Decker, who has caught touchdown passes in five straight games. “All of those things, you can use to your advantage offensively. We’re definitely clicking more as a unit offensively.”
When Manning chose Denver, he was very clear about his goals. The decision, he said, was about winning now. At 36 and with the injury he was returning from, he knows there aren’t many more seasons left to win another Super Bowl.
“I realize I don’t have 14 years left, by any means,” Manning said on the day he signed.
Luck, on the other hand, might. And he certainly wasn’t joining a team that was one, or even two or three pieces away from Super Bowl contention.
Or so the Colts thought.
Asked to compare the quarterbacks at this stage in their careers, Arians said he’d give Luck the nod, mainly because they’ve asked him to do more than they asked from Manning.
“Peyton, we gave two or three plays in the huddle, he was great at that phase of it, but we didn’t do the no-huddle until his second year,” Arians said. “I think (Luck’s) a step ahead only because of what we’re asking him to do. And he’s doing it with a bunch of rookies, whereas Peyton had some really good players on that team.”
AP sportswriter Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.