In this epic matchup between two quarterbacks that will forever be linked in history, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts offense took the field first. The Colts’ critical first possessions have often yielded little to nothing in big games. This would prove to be no different, as an eight-yard gain on first down to Dan “Boom” Herron was about all the Colts could muster in their opening drive.

The Colts’ defense proved that they too struggle, making poor decisions on opponents’ opening drives, and allow them to affect the end-result of the possession. On a third-and-five, Arthur Jones went low on Peyton Manning, drawing a flag for roughing the passer which extended the drive – and led to LaRon Landry getting beaten on consecutive plays, with the latter being a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.

Forced punts from both defenses gave the Colts a chance to redeem themselves starting from their own 27-yard line. Luck and the Colts chewed up yardage in a hurry, needing only nine plays to punch the ball into the end zone, tying up the game at 7 on a six-yard run from Herron. The Colts had three plays of 15 yards or more, converted on their only third-down attempt, and Luck went 3-for-3 with 55 yards passing on their first scoring drive of the game.

Jonathan Newsome soon provided the first turnover of the game as he strip-sacked Manning, giving the ball back to Luck with the opportunity to put some crucial points on the board. Luck and the offense would come through, as he found Dwayne Allen on a three-yard touchdown pass to put the “underdog” Colts up by a touchdown.

The Colts’ defense again held strong, forcing the Broncos off of the field with a three-and-out, giving Luck and the offense fantastic field position at their own 49-yard line. The Colts could not capitalize however, as “Mr. Clutch” Adam Vinatieri went wide right while attempting a 44-yard field goal. Broncos kicker Connor Barth would add a field goal with two seconds remaining in the first half, and the Colts took a 14-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.

The Colts’ defense held Manning to 71 yards through the air and the Broncos offense to 2/8 on third-down attempts. The Colts played about as good as you could expect in the first half against a heavily favored Broncos team, on both sides of the ball, but would need to start fast in the second half to legitimize their chances of pulling off the upset.

The defense was up first, as the Broncos received the second half kickoff, and did not disappoint – forcing a three-and-out to open the half. If there were a drive that were as critical as any in the game, it was the first possession of the second half for the Colts. Luck methodically led the offense down the field on a 12-play drive that was ultimately capped off on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks.

This was what Colts fans have been waiting to see from Nicks – an aggressive attack of the football, clearly winning him the catch over Aqib Talib. The Colts now held a 21-10 lead in hostile territory, which to most was certainly unexpected heading into the fourth quarter.

Aside from a 41-yard field goal from Barth early in the final stanza, the game became a defensive battle yielding no points until a Vinatieri field goal following a crucial drive that milked a ton of time off of the clock. The Colts defense drastically out-played everyone’s expectations, holding the Broncos offense under 200 total yards to this point in the game and only 267 yards for the duration.

Manning got another chance to cut into the lead, but that Colts’ defense proved to be too much for the Broncos on the biggest stage of their careers. The Colts turned them over on downs, ultimately sealing the win to the tune of 24-13, sending them to Foxborough for the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots.

Instant Analysis:

This was the first game of the year that the Colts had put together a full, four-quarter game on both sides of the ball against a quality opponent with all of their weapons. Luck had two interceptions, but they are almost not worth mentioning as they were glorified punts. Otherwise, Luck was fantastic, going 27-of-43 for 265 yards and two touchdowns.

Vontae Davis was just on another level as well on defense, with seven tackles to go along with countless passes defended, often matching up with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders for much of the game. Overall, the defense held the Broncos to 89 yards rushing in a game where they needed it the most and thoroughly shut down any deep balls from Manning (4.2 yards per attempt).

Many discounted the chances for these Indianapolis Colts to move on, but should they have? Or was this just the natural progression of an Andrew Luck-led Colts squad that has seemingly overachieved the last three seasons? If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is.

Luck has led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons and has taken the next step on the playoff ladder each year. His rookie season, Luck led them to the playoffs, getting beaten in the Wild Card round – last year to a Wild Card victory, and to the conference championship this year. So, maybe surprised is a poor choice of words.

The offensive line greatly improving in protection (zero sacks allowed) and Luck’s willingness to check down to his outlet have allowed the offense to become even more efficient over these last two weeks. If there was one area that wasn’t stellar, it would have to be that the Colts converted just 6-of-13 third-down attempts. The other side of the coin mitigating that stat is the crucial third downs that were converted. One was the six-yard touchdown from Herron, another was via a holding penalty on Talib that extended the Colts’ second touchdown drive – and maybe the biggest being the 32-yard completion to Coby Fleener, that followed two straight incompletions, extending the Colts’ final touchdown drive.

This game showcased the coaching staff at the top of their game as well and may have been just as important to the outcome as anything. The Colts are holding a ton of momentum going into the conference championship and their chances to shock the world appear to be far more realistic than just days ago.

The Colts will face the Patriots next Sunday, January 18 at 6:40 ET in Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium.

Matt Danely is an Indianapolis Colts Team Journalist for Pro Football Spot. Follow Matt (@MDanely_PFS) and Pro Football Spot: Colts (@Spot_Colts) on Twitter, as well as Google+

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