By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
The year was 2003. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was slinging four touchdown passes and amassing 399 passing yards during a 41-7 clinic against the Oakland Raiders just a day after his father, Irvin, died. And a 14-year-old boy was captivated watching the broadcast from his home in Houston.
That was the night Andrew Luck fell in love with "Monday Night Football."
Tonight the second-year quarterback will make his first appearance on the NFL's venerable national telecast when the Indianapolis Colts (4-1) travel to San Diego to face the 2-3 Chargers.
"I remember as a kid always wanting to stay up to watch the second half and being told I had to go to bed," Luck recalled earlier this week. "So I hope my mom lets my brother stay up and watch the second half. It'll be exciting. It's against a good San Diego team on the West Coast. It should be a lot of fun."
All the ingredients are in place for an entertaining air show.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is enjoying a career renaissance in his 10th season. He's completed 73.7 percent of his passes for 1,610 yards and 13 touchdowns, playing to a quarterback rating of 110.6.
But San Diego's defense — missing key components of its pass rush with outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney out for the season — has made opposing quarterbacks look almost as good.
The Chargers rank 27th in the league with 1,444 passing yards allowed. Opponents have thrown for 10 touchdowns and just one interception against them this season.
But Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said Indianapolis can't get caught up in the numbers.
"We're going to stick with our formula," he said. "We just got to continue to work on just staying on schedule, making sure that third down is managable. If we can get first downs, we feel good about continuing drives and having opportunities to score touchdowns."
The Colts' formula thus far has called for a heavy dose of the running game.
Indianapolis ranks fourth in the league with 710 rushing yards and seventh with 151 rushing attempts. The results have been evident on the scoreboard, with the Colts' 139 points representing the sixth-most in the NFL.
The running game faltered early last week against Seattle but came on strong late to help close out a 34-28 victory against the high-flying Seahawks.
Seattle led that game 12-0 a little more than 10 minutes into the first quarter, and slow starts have been problematic for Indianapolis this year. Hamilton said much of the responsibility for turning that around rests on his shoulders.
"I got to do a better job of finding a way to get our guys in more of a rhythm," he said. "It's always tough when your first pass attempt of the game is an incompletion, for whatever reason. I got to do a better job of putting our guys in a position to execute and make plays early in the game and getting off to a faster start."
Nobody can argue with the way the team has been finishing games.
The Colts have outscored their opponents 35-7 in the fourth quarter, and Luck already has two fourth-quarter comeback victories this year. He's led nine game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime through his first 21 NFL games overall.
But the quarterback says Indianapolis' late-game success is not all about him.
"(It's) sort of the DNA of Coach Pagano," Luck said. "The way we play for him is you play 60 minutes as hard as you can. You score, and at the end of the day you're going to win it or lose it. That's how he wants us to practice. That's how he pushes us to practice. We take that to heart and have managed to come out on top more than on bottom."
Pagano also pushes winning the turnover battle.
Indianapolis' success last year came in spite of a minus-12 differential in turnover margin. This year, the Colts are plus-6.
That could be a key stat against a San Diego team that has struggled to protect the football. Rivers' one weakness has been his five interceptions, and the Chargers are minus-8 as a team.
Turnovers helped Houston score a come-from-behind 31-28 victory at San Diego in a Monday night game to end Week 1, and three early turnovers led to 17 points last week in the Chargers' 27-17 loss to Oakland.
Pagano preaches to his players that the enemy is in their own camp. As long as they prepare properly throughout the week and execute to the best of their ability on game day, everything else will sort itself out.
That approach won't change. Even with the nation watching.
"One play at a time, all you got, 60 minutes, don't judge," Pagano said, repeating his favorite mantra. "We talked about 'don't judge,' it means don't look at the scoreboard. Doesn't matter if you're up, if you're down. Play as hard as you can and make sure you're in position when the play shows up you're there to make it."