(AP) Robert Mathis' second-quarter strip sack of Peyton Manning led to nine points and Andrew Luck threw his third TD pass with 10 seconds left in the first half Sunday night to give the Indianapolis Colts a 26-14 lead over the unbeaten Denver Broncos.
Mathis, one of the few holdovers from the Manning era still with the Colts, changed the game by knocking the ball out of his former teammate's hand before he could throw it. The loose ball fluttered backward into the end zone before Erik Walden was ruled to have recovered it out of bounds. The safety cut Denver's lead to 14-12.
Luck then marched the Colts 66 yards in seven plays, capping the ensuing drive with a short swing pass to fullback Stanley Havili who ran down the right sideline to finish the 20-yard touchdown and give Indianapolis its second lead of the game.
And before the half ended, Luck perfectly executed a 2-minute drill, hooking up with Coby Fleener on an 8-yard score to make it 26-14 and leaving no time for Manning to respond.
Denver cornerback Champ Bailey left late in the second quarter after injuring his left foot. His return was questionable.
Manning threw two touchdown passes in the first half.
It was an entertaining start to this weekend's marquee matchup.
The Colts former franchise quarterback started the scoring with a two-play, 56-yard drive, hooking up with Eric Decker on both passes the second a 17-yard scoring play as Colts safety Antoine Bethea slipped in the end zone.
Luck responded by driving the Colts for a 27-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
Indianapolis took its first lead of the game after Denver punt returner Trindon Holliday lost a fumble at his own 11. Luck took advantage on the next play, finding Darrius Heyward-Bey wide open on a screen pass for an 11-yard score.
Julius Thomas then made a juggling catch in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard score to give the Broncos a 14-10 lead.
But Mathis' sack changed the whole complexion on an emotional night.
Manning was playing against his former team for the first time since being released by the Colts in March 2012, the move that paved the way for Luck to become his successor. And he was trying to join Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks to beat all 32 NFL teams.
It was billed as the NFL's biggest homecoming since Favre returned to Green Bay in 2009 and some locals said this was the biggest regular-season game since the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
The fans gave him a warm welcome.
When Manning first ran onto the field, some sections in the lower bowl looked like a checkerboard of Colts blue and Broncos orange. They roared for No. 18 throughout a 90-second video tribute featuring some of his most memorable moments with the Colts including the record-breaker with Marvin Harrison for most TDs by a quarterback-receiver duo, the AFC championship comeback against New England and, of course, the evening when he finally hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in rainy Miami .
Manning responded by stopping his warm-up throws, taking off his helmet, waving to the fans and mouthing the words "Thank you."
The large video screen then cut to a fan holding a sign that that read "Thanks Peyton But Tonight I'm A Colts Fan."
It was a far cry from this week's big controversy when owner Jim Irsay said he regretted that the Colts didn't win more than one Super Bowl during the Manning era. Many contended it was disrespectful.
Another crowd favorite, Reggie Wayne, who stuck around after Manning was released in March 2012, posed for pregame photos along two ex-teammates and old friends, Harrison and Edgerrin James, as the franchise celebrated his entry Monday night into the 1,000-catch club.
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