Manning was sensational, throwing three TD passes in the first 23 minutes, then mediocre, getting picked off three times in the Colts' 28-16 victory over Denver for their 22nd consecutive regular-season win. While Manning struggled late, the defense held off the Broncos as Indy broke the Patriots' record victory streak set just last year.
The Colts are one of seven NFL teams to go 13-0, including this year's New Orleans Saints. The 2005 Colts also were 13-0 before losing three of their last four, including a divisonal-round playoff game to Pittsburgh.
"We knew we needed this game to solidify home-field advantage in the playoffs, and that's what we wanted," linebacker Clint Session said. "We feel we're our best in our home stadium, and we got the win."
It was a remarkable day for Indy and Denver.
While the Colts (13-0) won their 114th game of the decade, breaking a tie with the 1990s San Francisco 49ers, broke a franchise record 13th consecutive home game as they clinched home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, Denver receiver Brandon Marshall broke the league's single-game record with 21 receptions.
Marshall tied the record on a 5-yard TD catch with 9:44 left in the game to make it 21-16 and broke the record on the Broncos' final play.
But Manning had answered Marshall's fourth-quarter score by leading a game-sealing drive, hooking up with Dallas Clark on a 1-yard TD catch — his third TD of the game — with 2:25 to go.
"It does (feel good)," Session said. "I'm a part of history right now, so it feels real good. It's something we can tell our kids and grandkids that we did something no one else had done. It's definitely a great accomplishment."
It was easily the strangest win in the Colts' streak.
Manning led Indy to touchdowns on three of its first four drives, then somehow lost his touch. After completing 10 of 16 throws in the first quarter, Manning went just 6 of 22 over the next two-plus quarters, once missing nine of 10 passes while throwing all three interceptions. He hadn't throw as many picks in a game since having a career-high six at San Diego in November 2007.
Yet the Colts continually made plays on defense to prevent Denver from ever taking the lead.
"Well, we did recognize it in the locker room. When you go 22 in a row, that's difficult to do," said Jim Caldwell, who took over as coach from the retired Tony Dungy and has the best record for a rookie coach in NFL history. "It's built on the shoulders of several guys who aren't even in that locker room, Tony included."
Dungy, now an analyst for NBC's Football Night in America, added:
"When I first got into coaching, Coach Noll used to talk about three-game winning streaks being hard to do. So 22 straight is something that you think you will never see. It's a great credit to the entire organization and to the consistency of the players. I am proud to have been a part of it."
Indy wasted no time in taking charge.
Manning opened the game with a 5-yard TD pass to Austin Collie, ending a time consuming 80-yard drive. After a Denver three-and-out, Manning connected with Clark for a 10-yard score to make it 14-0.
The Colts were just getting started. After they limited the Broncos' to 23 yards rushing on eight carries in the first quarter, Manning took the Colts 71 yards and hooked up with Clark for a 1-yard score to make it 21-0.
That's when Denver ditched the running game and put the ball in Kyle Orton's hands. And Marshall's.
Orton went to Marshall on six of the next 12 plays, finally hooking up for a 4-yard score to make it 21-7 at the half.
But with Manning out of sync, Denver threatened.
The Broncos got a 28-yard field goal from Matt Prater early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10, and Marshall tied the receptions record to make it 21-16.
When Indy stopped the Broncos' 2-point conversion, Manning finally righted things.
"I thought Denver made some plays, and we had some bad luck with bouncing balls there," Manning said. "We kind of weathered the storm, and the defense did a great job. So it was kind of two different games in terms of momentum, but fortunately we finished on a high note."