- Mike Wells, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It was only fitting that the owner, you know the one whose comments were supposed to motivate Peyton Manning to put up astronomical numbers in his return trip to Indianapolis, walked out of the Indianapolis Colts' locker room holding a football shortly after his team beat the Denver Broncos 39-33 on Sunday.
This wasn't just any football Jim Irsay had a firm grip of.
It was the game ball.
Irsay earned the right to take the ball home -- and stick his nose up at the critics -- after being the center of attention during what was supposed to be a special week for the Colts and Manning.
Irsay was heavily criticized about comments he says were taken out of context when talking about how he believes the team should be built -- a balanced offense, defense and special teams -- now that Manning calls Denver home.
You know what?
It was the balanced team that beat Manning's "Star Wars" numbers in front of a sold out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd.
That's why coach Chuck Pagano gave his owner an emotional postgame speech inside the locker room.
These Colts (5-2) aren't the flashiest team, but they find a way to get it done. Game balls could have been given out to the entire offense, defense and special teams.
"We all knew what we were up against and the players were just hanging tough," Pagano said. "This is the grittiest football team that I've ever been around my entire life."
The Colts spent the week leading up to the game not listening to people say they weren't good enough to hang with the high-scoring Broncos. Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne referred to last week as a circus because of the attention the game got.
"We were willing to work and prove everybody wrong," Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "I knew everybody in the media world was banking on Peyton Manning coming in here and putting on a show. I tip my hat to him, he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But this team -- all three aspects of it -- was excellent. We fought for 60 minutes. We knew it wasn't a game that would be won in a half."
The list of Super Bowl contenders the Colts have beaten this season has now grown to three teams in just seven games. San Francisco and Seattle are the other two teams the Colts have knocked off.
Pagano has excelled at not getting caught up in the moment of who they're playing, even if this time it was the player responsible for leading the Colts to a Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season.
"It's a long season and you can't afford to do that," Pagano said late last week. "You get yourself in trouble when that happens."
Like all good teams do, the players follow their coach's lead. Quarterback Andrew Luck did his part by throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns. But the game changed when the defense stepped up.
Until Sunday night, Robert Mathis hadn't been able to come close to Manning. He remembered being chewed out for coming too close to him in a practice a decade ago when the two were teammates.
The Colts forced the Broncos into five straight punts after the safety. Manning threw for 386 yards, but the Colts sacked him four times, intercepted a pass and forced Denver into three turnovers total.
"We heard how we couldn't stop people before,” Colts defensive back Darrius Butler said. "We heard the same thing going into San Francisco week and Seattle week. As long as guys in this locker believe in each other, we can accomplish anything. We stuck to our keys and did our thing. Guys had to win their matchups and that's what happened for the most part.”
Colts punter Pat McAfee used his 6-foot-1, 233-pound frame to deliver a hard hit -- and possible fine -- on Trindon Holliday along Denver's sideline on a return. Fullback Stanley Havili stripped Holliday on a punt return, setting up a touchdown from Luck to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the next play.
It was just how Irsay envisioned. All three areas contributing to Denver's first loss of the season.
"We could care less what anybody says outside of Colts Nation,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "We don't listen to the outside noise. You can say what you want to say, pick who you want to pick. We always know we have a chance. It's all about us.”
588dJeff Legwold and Mike Wells