Luck, Colts get an up-close lesson about what it takes to be elite
FOXBORO, Mass. -- By late Sunday night there was still no word yet on whether Andrew Luck's mother (or perhaps his father in this case) told him there'd be days like this. But no matter. By the time this one was over, it was well understood that a message had been successfully sent and received here at Gillette Stadium.
Most lessons have to be learned first-hand in the NFL, and often in painful fashion. But the education of the talented Colts rookie quarterback dominated center stage in New England's 59-24 thrashing of Indianapolis, teaching Luck so many different things it was probably hard to keep track.
Like, when you throw high in this league, you lose. When you throw late on an out pattern, you pay for it. And when you give the vaunted Patriots any advantage whatsoever, they are apt to take it and beat you over the head with it, profusely. As New England's 52-10 scoring edge over the final three quarters -- after the Colts led 14-7 at the end of 15 minutes -- so vividly demonstrated.
Luck couldn't remember ever getting beat before by five touchdowns, but he didn't rule it out either, offering: "I'm sure sometime in Pop Warner.''
It was that kind of introduction to the Colts-Patriots rivalry for Luck. Historic. But not the kind he wanted any part of. New England tied a franchise record for points in the blowout, returning two of Luck's season-high three interceptions for touchdowns, and also forcing him into a fumble. In a game Indy was hoping to use as a measuring stick, the Colts came far shorter than any worst-case scenario they could imagine. It wasn't total domination from start to finish, but eight touchdowns and one field goal scored by New England left no doubt to the outcome.
"This team has a lot of heart and there's no quit in us, but playing hard is not enough, obviously as evidenced tonight,'' Luck said. "We'll get better though. We'll learn from the mistakes. You realize you can't make those if you want to have a chance to beat a quality team like the Patriots.
"You'd like to think we have a chance to win if we play them again, but they whipped our butts tonight and all the credit goes to them. They were the much better team tonight.''
As much as the blowout had to hurt, the best news I heard coming out of the Colts locker room is that they didn't allow any sense of denial to take root in the aftermath of the 35-point loss. They didn't reach for the disrespectful cop-out of having beaten themselves, and they didn't pretend that they'll be able to quickly turn the page after such a lopsided result in a game they were pointing to for weeks.
That's healthy, that's helpful and that's the first step toward not letting a game like this happen again. For a young team sprinkled with some key veterans like the Colts have, the reaction to the decisive loss was pitch perfect.
"No, you better remember [this],'' said Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians. "You better damn sure remember it. Because you hope to be back here and you don't want to forget it. You don't throw things away in this business, you learn from them. We will watch this tape real hard tomorrow. We won't burn it and go to the next one. We will watch it and learn from it, and we will get better for it.''
Arians didn't mince words either when it came to detailing Luck's mistakes. Luck completed 27 of 50 passes for 334 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble lost) he was responsible for provided the teachable moments for the No. 1 overall pick. The Patriots converted the first three of those into 21 points, turning that 14-7 Colts first-quarter lead into a 45-17 early fourth-quarter deficit.
Give that kind of help to the Patriots and it's game, set, match. Every time.
"Just bad throws,'' Arians said. "[The Patriots defense] didn't do anything different. That's all hype. It's fundamentals. You can't throw an out late. We talked about it and [Luck] was mad at himself, and that's the beauty of him. It was something he knew that he couldn't do and he did it anyway. Every week's a learning experience for him. It was a bad learning experience. Two high throws cost him.''
One of those wayward throws turned into a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown by the newest Patriots defender, cornerback Aqib Talib, which broke a 14-14 tie with 10:59 left in the first half, giving New England a lead it would never relinquish. The other came on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard picked off Luck and raced 87 yards down the right sideline for the touchdown that blew the game wide open at 45-17.
"We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times, but it's to New England's credit,'' Luck said. "They're the guys out there creating those turnovers. I think they were the right reads, just some high balls. A ball behind the guy. But hindsight is 20-20. I wish I could have them back, but I'll learn from it and get ready for a big game next week. I don't think we'll brush it under the rug.''
Again, that's the right call these Colts are making. It was a bitter way to end their four-game winning streak, but the reality is they're still 6-4 entering next week's home game against Buffalo (4-6), and if the playoffs opened today, they'd be an AFC wild card. There's plenty to still play for in Indianapolis this season, and Luck can't get let one poor performance bleed over into next week. Not when the Colts still have a pretty favorable schedule and route to a nine- or 10-win season and the title of turnaround team of the year in the NFL.
"Andrew is really good at using the good and the bad to get better as a player,'' Colts offensive right tackle Winston Justice said. "You have to use them both. Of course, any loss is going to chip away a little bit at your confidence, but it says a lot about a person in how they bounce back, and this could be a turning point in our having success in the future.''
Luck being a rookie, he doesn't know what some of his Colts teammates endured in 2011, when they started the season 0-13 en route to the 2-14 mark that earned them the first overall pick in the draft and the rights to rebuild around him. But as bad a taste as this loss left, Indianapolis veteran linebacker Robert Mathis realizes how far the team already has come.
"This time last year, we were [0-10], so trust me, if there's anybody who knows how to bounce back it's the veterans on this team,'' Mathis said. "We're not going to get our head down, we're going to take this as a lesson learned. You've got to let [this] burn a little bit. We have a long season, and there's a whole lot [to still play for]. You can't get down and out and just pack up and call it a season.''
Luck and the Colts were appropriately critical of their performance Sunday, but next week's showing against Buffalo will help tell us what the rookie quarterback gained from the experience of being roughed up by New England. Mistakes made, but not repeated, that's the measurement of progress that matters most in the season's final six games. If Luck now knows what not to do based on his harsh Week 11, it'll be a hard-earned lesson, but a well-learned one, too.