INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Irsay figured the road to Indianapolis’ next Super Bowl title eventually would go through Peyton Manning’s new team.
He never anticipated it would happen this fast.
Heading into Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Broncos, the Colts owner said Tuesday that Hollywood couldn’t have created a better script than Manning vs. Andrew Luck.
“It was my hope and dream that this sort of situation would occur. I feel blessed that it has,” Irsay said during a 30-minute news conference in Indianapolis. “Peyton remains a really dear friend to me. We have communicated through the months. I think it’s going to be a great game and having these two great quarterbacks go against each other at this point in their careers is really exciting.”
The winner earns a ticket to the AFC Championship game. The loser heads home to contemplate what must be fixed before Round 4 of this quarterback duel takes place sometime next season.
Irsay said he and then-team president Bill Polian started discussing how and when to transition from Manning to his eventual successor in 2010. Irsay said they determined at that time that most prominent quarterbacks started declining at about age 38. Manning will turn 39 in March, and Irsay noted that Manning could defy the odds because he’s still playing at such a high level.
Those talks became more important a year later when Manning missed the entire season because of a nerve injury that weakened his right arm. Without their star quarterback, the usually strong Colts stumbled to a 2-14 mark.
Irsay was forced to decide whether to keep a potentially proficient but injured and soon-to-be 35-year-old quarterback with a high salary-cap number or rebuild immediately. His answer came on the final day of the 2011 season.
“It was (Maurice Jones-Drew) that gave it to us, he reached out on that 4-yard gain and got the first down in Jacksonville and that changed our destiny,” Irsay said, referring to the play that assured Indy of having the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2012.
Two months later, Irsay made an emotional announcement that Manning and the Colts were parting ways. Even then, Irsay insisted he wanted Manning to get another shot at a Super Bowl title while the revamped Colts would attempt to put themselves back into contention.
A month later, Indy kicked off the rebuilding process by taking Luck with the top pick, and it didn’t take long for the former Colts star and the new Colts star to embark on a collision course.
Manning led the Broncos to three straight AFC West titles and last year’s Super Bowl.
Luck, meanwhile, won 33 regular-season games, reached the playoffs in each of his first three NFL seasons and captured the last two AFC South titles. In a wild-card round win last year against Kansas City, Luck engineered the second-greatest comeback in playoff history. And last weekend’s wild-card win over Cincinnati set up Sunday’s rematch with Manning’s Broncos, who won 31-24 in the season opener.
“It’s been special,” Irsay said of the Luck era. “Obviously the Kansas City game last year was historic. Again (in Sunday’s win), 376 yards with drops and some of the throws he made, it’s incredible. That’s what we saw when he was coming out (of college).”
Manning has played well, too. He won a league record fifth MVP last season after shattering Tom Brady’s single-season record for touchdown passes (55), and he has the Broncos (12-4) back in the Super Bowl hunt.
While some contend Manning is starting to play like a 38-year-old quarterback and that his playoff history has been sub-par, Irsay doesn’t buy it.
“Peyton plays at such a high level and plays so great that people put expectations that are unrealistic because I really think whether you get one, two, three championships, a lot more is involved,” said Irsay, who reiterated he would have liked to have hoisted more than one Lombardi Trophy with Manning. “I think he’s one of the greatest players ever to play the game at his position. He’s going to be in that conversation when you talk about it.”
He’d just rather see Luck and the Colts take this round.
“I thought we played better on Sunday and when I say that, I mean that I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet,” Irsay said. “With the task at hand where we’re going, we’re going to have to take it to that next level. There’s no question about it.”