The Herald Bulletin

January 5, 2014

Luck reaches new level with playoff rally

By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — In the aftermath of Saturday's epic comeback, Andrew Luck's general manager compared him to Michael Jordan. Fans went one step further, placing his number 12 inside a Superman shield and imposing it over an Indianapolis Colts horseshoe logo in their Twitter avatars.

Internet memes featuring an image of Luck flying into the end zone on a 5-yard fumble recovery went viral. Everyone, it seemed, was celebrating the forging of a new playoff hero in the wake of the Colts' incredible 45-44 AFC Wild Card victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The quarterback who the led the charge, meanwhile, was thankful simply for not being pulled from the game early after throwing three interceptions.

"So proud to be a part of this team," Luck said in the postgame interview room. "Felt like for a moment there I was trying to lose the game for us. Happy that the coaches, players stuck by me and trusted in me."

That trust has only grown as Indianapolis' modest superstar prepares for the biggest game of his two-year NFL career.

The newly minted legend will face one of the game's true icons next Saturday when the Colts travel to Foxborough, Mass., for a divisional playoff game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It will be the fourth postseason meeting between the former AFC East rivals, hoping to take its place alongside the classic battles between Brady and Peyton Manning.

Luck threw for 334 yards and two touchdowns in his only previous game against the Patriots on Nov. 18, 2012. But he also threw three interceptions as Indianapolis was routed 59-24.

Much has changed for both franchises since that regular season game. And many believe the Colts' quarterback raised his game to yet another level in his first playoff win.

"I don't know what level it is, but he sure went to another one yesterday," Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano said during a media conference call Sunday afternoon. "He's a guy that's able to put things behind him in a hurry."

That includes his miscues against the Chiefs. An interception on the final drive of the first half cost the Colts nothing more than possession. But his two second-half picks led to 10 Kansas City points and complicated Indianapolis' comeback attempt.

The final turnover came at his own 28 with 5:44 remaining in the third quarter. The Colts had shaved a 28-point deficit to 38-24, and the defense had just forced one of two Kansas City punts.

Luck's pass went through wide receiver T.Y. Hilton's hands and was intercepted by Husain Abdullah. As he watched the Chiefs drive for a field goal to push their lead back to 17 points, NBC's cameras caught Luck's expression on the sideline.

It was somewhere north of anger and disgust, and the quarterback later admitted he was frustrated with himself at that moment. But he took none of that discontent with him back onto the field.

"I think the thing that's great about him is he's no different in the huddle during those times usually than he is at any other time," left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. "Everything's very methodical. He looks at every play as a new game, and I think everybody on offense looks at each play as a new game that we can win. If we take it one play at a time, usually we end up doing pretty well."

The Colts' remarkable rally began with a 46-yard completion to Da'Rick Rogers that set up a 10-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. That came on the drive immediately following Luck's second interception.

On the three drives after his third, the quarterback threw a pair of touchdown passes and rumbled into the end zone himself after recovering a Brown fumble.

He finished 29-of-45 overall with a career-high 443 yards — the fifth-highest total in playoff history, one spot below Manning — and four touchdowns. The final score came with 4:21 remaining on a perfectly thrown 64-yard pass to Hilton.

"(Luck's) play along with the offensive line and the wide receivers, all those guys came up with big plays," Pagano said. "Certainly T.Y. had an unbelievable game, the catches (13), the yards (224, both franchise playoff records). That last throw and catch was phenomenal."

Indianapolis' 536 total yards set a postseason franchise record and were the ninth-most in playoff history. And the 45 points were the second-most ever scored by the Colts in a playoff game.

By Sunday evening, however, the team's thoughts already had turned to New England and the next round of the playoffs. Pagano said the team set only one goal when it arrived for training camp in late July at Anderson University — winning the Super Bowl next month in New York.

To accomplish that objective, the Colts likely will need more days like Saturday from Luck.

"Hey, he does it all," inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "As long as we continue to get the ball to him, we know some kind of way he's going to put points on the board, that offense is going to get rolling. (Offensive coordinator) Pep (Hamilton) has a lot of different schemes. I'm sure y'all see it, they can do it in the passing game and the running game. It's great to have a quarterback like that."