DENVER, Jan. 2 -- Denver fans were paying big-league ticket prices to watch their favorite team pound the Indianapolis Colts' backups Sunday, but there were no demands for refunds after the Broncos' 33-14 victory at Invesco Field clinched a wild-card berth and a first-round rematch with the same team next Sunday in Indianapolis.
Ensured of the third seed in the AFC and knowing his team could not improve its position, Colts Coach Tony Dungy played record-breaking quarterback Peyton Manning and running back Edgerrin James, the No. 2 rusher in the NFL, for one three-play series to start the game.
Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie pulls in a 38-yard touchdown pass ahead of the Colts' Jason David. The teams will meet again in the playoffs.
(Jack Dempsey -- AP)
Though his team entered riding an eight-game winning streak, he preferred not to risk the health of a number of his skill position players and avoided providing the Broncos four quarters of fresh game tape to analyze this week before the two teams meet again in the first round.
"We were looking at the early games and wanted to see how those went and that would determine how much we played our starters and how much we were actually going to do," Dungy said. "The way those games turned out we knew there was the possibility we could play Denver again. I was trying to do a lot of things for us and try to get some guys some work."
The Broncos (10-6) did not have that luxury, knowing they had to win to get into the 12-team playoff tournament. And even with the Colts (12-4) resting their entire starting offense in the second half, including 1,000-yard plus receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, the Broncos were never really able to put them away until quarterback Jake Plummer used a bootleg to run five yards for a touchdown and a 13-point lead midway through the third quarter.
"We had to put it all out there," said Plummer, who completed 17 of his 30 attempts for 246 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Plummer finished the season with 4,089 passing yards, setting a franchise record previously held by John Elway (4,030 in 1993), and also became the first quarterback in team history to take every snap during the regular season.
"I have never been about stats," said Plummer, who has struggled throwing 20 interceptions this season. "We're happy with the win because it gives us a chance to start a new season in the playoffs."
The Broncos, who had lost three of five, advanced to the postseason for the sixth time in Coach Mike Shanahan's 10 years, but they haven't won a playoff game in six years. There has been speculation that Shanahan, the sixth head coach to win 100 games in his first 10 years, might even walk away if his team doesn't end that trend next week. But for this evening at least, he was simply delighted the Broncos would have another game.
"The bottom line is we get an opportunity," he said. "Obviously, it's a great challenge for us to go into their backyard against a defense that has created a lot of turnovers this year and an offense that has not made a lot of mistakes and scored a lot of points. . . . We're all judged on what we do in the playoffs, and I hope we'll play accordingly."
A year ago, the Broncos also clinched a playoff spot by going on the road and beating Indianapolis in the regular season. Two weeks later in a wild-card game also in Indianapolis, the Colts ended Denver's season with an overwhelming 41-10 victory on a day they opened a 31-3 lead at halftime and Manning threw for 377 yards with five touchdowns.
Almost to a man, the Broncos said Sunday they were embarrassed by that loss, and as strong safety Kenoy Kennedy said, "We'd like to do something about it next week."
Manning was involved in the game Sunday mostly as the NFL's highest-priced sideline signal relay man. He was replaced by rookie Jim Sorgi, a sixth-round draft choice from Wisconsin who had thrown four passes all season, after the Broncos forced a Colts punt on the opening series. Manning spent most of his day relaying offensive coordinator Tom Moore's plays in to Sorgi's helmet headset and encouraging his inexperienced understudy.
Sorgi had a Manning-like beginning, completing all seven of his passes on the Colts' first drive, including a seven-yard slant to Harrison to open the scoring. He also was the beneficiary of some determined open-field running by Wayne, who scored on a 71-yard pass with 4 minutes 47 seconds left in the first half, cutting Denver's lead to 17-14.
Sorgi finished 16 of 25 for 168 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His quarterback rating was 110.1 in a league that considers anything above 100 as a very fine day.
But the far more significant numbers involved the quarterback he has backed up all season. Manning, who set a record last week with 49 touchdown passes for the season, completed one of his two passes for six yards and ended the regular season with an NFL record 121.1 quarterback rating, surpassing the mark of 112.8 set by San Francisco's Steve Young in 1994. Manning came into the game knowing he could have thrown eight interceptions and still break Young's record.
"I thought [the 112.8 rating] would be impossible to break, and Peyton has shattered it," said Shanahan, who was the 49ers' offensive coordinator when Young set the record. "People don't really know what a feat that is. I couldn't imagine anyone breaking that record. For him to shatter it speaks volumes on what he's been able to accomplish this year."