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Associated Press
Denver’s Peyton Manning talks to Indianapolis’ quarterback Andrew Luck after the Colts beat the Broncos in Manning’s return to Indianapolis on Sunday.

Next step – without leader – is biggest for Colts

– So what now? What’s a team to do when Sunday’s joy is darkened by Monday’s MRI?

The circus has left town for the Indianapolis Colts. The handmade Peyton Manning posters have been tossed away (a personal favorite: “Sack him gently Robert”). The last $30 Broncos-Colts game T-shirts have been sold. Doubtful, the Lucas Oil Stadium entrepreneurs have a new supply when the Jacksonville Jaguars visit.

Oh, it was loud, fun and memorable. “The energy,” Andrew Luck said afterward, “you could taste it.” But now comes the harder, grittier work as contenders positioning themselves for the playoffs. And it must be done with part of the heart of the team gone.

Ain’t it funny, how irony works? All the week’s buzz about great Indianapolis quarterbacks past and present, and an underthrown incompletion could end up the most far-reaching moment of the night. Luck might have put up the costliest bad pass of the NFL season, when a wide open Reggie Wayne blew out his knee trying to scoop up a duck of toss.

It was in the wee hours of Monday morning, that Luck finally addressed the media and delivered his thoughts on Wayne’s injury, which came on the 35th Colts pass of the night.

“It stinks, to the Nth degree,” Luck said. “I put a lot of that on myself. I don’t think there was anybody within a square mile of him.”

So the soap opera is over, and now, less glitzy but more pressing matters are on the table.

A division must be won. Five of the last nine games are against AFC South opponents, so the Colts can either bury the likes of Tennessee for good, or leave the door ajar.

Home field advantage for at least part of the postseason must be secured. If you wonder at the possible significance of that, we direct you to Luck’s 10-2 career record in Lucas Oil Stadium. So upcoming games at Kansas City and Cincinnati – with their possible tie-breaker scenarios – could be huge.

The running game still has to work better, and the overall performance must be steadier each week. The same team that put up 39 points on the Broncos put up nine at San Diego. “I think we can play with anyone in the NFL,” Coby Fleener said. “But that said, we need to be more consistent.”

And everything must be accomplished without Wayne, an enormous loss for a team that so openly values cohesion and chemistry. Listen to Luck describe after the game how the Colts had maneuvered so well through last week’s Manning-palooza.

“We didn’t let the outside spheres of influence creep into the locker room,” he said. “We couldn’t let other things distract us, or else they would expose us. We’ve got great leadership. Robert Mathis sets the tone, Reggie sets the tone. We just follow them.”

The Colts just lost half of those tone-setters, not to mention a favorite Luck target. Wayne gets the torn ACL and Luck a gnawing guilt.

So Manning Week was not a destination, but merely a Week 7 layover that happened to come with a gazillion cameras and microphones. To be sure, the momentous nature of the occasion Sunday night guarantees it must occupy a favored spot in Luck’s mental scrapbook of his career. “I haven’t given it a thought,” he said, “but probably.”

But the verdict of this Colts’ season will be decided by how they finish, and how they carry on without one of their leaders.

The voices in the Indianapolis postgame locker room Sunday night understood the benefits of what the Colts had just done.

“This game couldn’t have come at a better time,” cornerback Darius Butler was saying. “Prime time, after we laid an egg on prime time last week.”

Mathis concurred. “There is a momentum. It’s a confidence-booster to say the least.”

But one doctor’s report has put a different light on the afterglow of the evening Peyton came home. The event was scintillating and worthy of its megahype – if only the owner would stay off his Twitter. But one thunderous night in October does not make a team’s legacy. Peyton Manning is gone, and so is Reggie Wayne. What is the rest of the story?

Mike Lopresti is a freelance writer. His columns appear periodically.

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