INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning made one big mistake late in Sunday's game. Denver's top-rated defense made several more after losing its composure.
The combination led to a perfectly miserable finish.
Andrew Luck threw two touchdown passes and set up Adam Vinatieri for a 55-yard field goal with 6:13 left in the game to give Indianapolis a 27-24 victory — ruining Manning's homecoming and ending Denver's unbeaten season.
"We did do a great job of getting ourselves back into position to win," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Did we do some not very smart things at the end of the game to get the ball back? I agree with that, but we dug ourselves a hole as a team in the first half."
It was supposed to be a historic and triumphant return for Manning.
He came back to the city he called home from 1998-2011 within striking distance of Brett Favre's career passing record (71,838) and needing one win to break Favre's league record for regular-season wins by a quarterback (186).
Both will have to wait until next week, when the Broncos (7-1) host Kansas City. Manning finished 21 of 36 with 281 yards, 3 short of the record, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
What really doomed the Broncos after Manning was picked off with 6 minutes to play, though, was a flurry of defensive penalties — three of which gave the Colts first downs including a holding call on Danny Trevathan on a field goal with 28 seconds to play. That penalty gave the Colts a first down and allowed them to run out the clock.
"Obviously, our defense has done a great job all year," Manning said. "They made some stops and we had chances. So you have to try and do your part offensively, and that's all you think about."
All Luck and the Colts (4-5) were thinking about was the win.
They ended a three-game losing streak, won for the first time in six tries outside the horrible AFC South, and retained their division lead.
And, most important, they looked much better on offense and defense.
"That's who we need to be, consistently," Luck said. "Probably a little bit of soul searching, trying to figure out what we want to be. The truth of the matter is we have the pieces, which is pretty darn obvious."
Just five days after firing offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and giving the play-calling duties to Rob Chudzinski — and four days after Luck wound up on the injury report again — Manning's successor played like the best young quarterback in football. The Colts followed his lead:
—They started fast and finished strong.
—They had no turnovers.
—They committed only four penalties, and the 17-0 lead they took in the first half was their largest of the season. They even ended Denver's first-quarter scoreless streak at seven games when Frank Gore scored on a 7-yard run.
That's exactly what Indianapolis needed, and precisely what coach Chuck Pagano had spent weeks preaching.
"We really feel we've competed with the best football teams in the league — Denver, New England, Carolina," team owner Jim Irsay said. "We still feel we can go the places we dream of going."
They could — if Luck continues playing this way.
He was 21 of 36 for 252 yards and led the Colts on two tie-breaking drives in the fourth quarter.
The first ended with an 8-yard TD pass to Ahmad Bradshaw that gave Indy a 24-17 lead. Then after Manning tied the score again a 1-yard TD pass to Owen Daniels, Luck took the Colts back down the field and set up Vinatieri for his longest field goal since coming to Indy in 2006.
Luck could have made it three straight scoring series had he not taken a knee on the final play at Denver's 1-yard line.
Denver closed to 17-7 on Omar Bolden's 83-yard punt return on the last play of the first half. Manning started the second half with a 64-yard TD pass to Emmanuel Sanders and the Broncos tied it on a 29-yard field goal from Brandon McManus.
But they never got the lead.
"We dug ourselves a hole in the first half and showed a lot of character getting out of that hole," coach Gary Kubiak said. "We just weren't able to close the deal after battling our way back. They (Colts) finished it, we didn't."
Daniels caught six passes for 102 yards, and Sanders had six receptions for 90 yards and a TD for Denver.
NOTES: Colts Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams (ankle) and defensive tackle Henry Anderson (sprained right knee) left the game. ... Denver linebacker DeMarcus Ware left in the second half with a back injury. ... Bolden's return for the TD was only the second to end a half since 1970 (DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia, 2010).