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Contrast between Luck, Dalton starker than ever as Colts top Bengals

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was the kind of play that transcends football vernacular and forces one to tap into the lexicon of other arts and humanities. Andrew Luck, so patient and resourceful he targeted his starting running back out of the backfield 11 times on Sunday, shimmied past a Reggie Nelson third-quarter blitz and fired a 36-yard strike to Donte Moncrief in the corner of the end zone with both feet off the ground, while being tripped forward.

This isn’t a quarterback doing quarterback things. This is performance art.

Said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano: “The one magical play to Moncrief was Andrew at his finest. He’s a maestro back there.”

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On a day in which Luck passed Kurt Warner to break the record for most passing yards in a player’s first four career postseason games, the Colts handled the Cincinnati Bengals 26-10, advancing to a divisional playoff showdown in Denver. Luck was efficient, conservative and spectacular all at once, passing for 376 yards and completing 31-of-44 passes including the touchdown to Moncrief.

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Cincinnati, playing without the injured A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, two of Andy Dalton’s most reliable receivers, faltered in the first round of the postseason for the fourth time in the four years that Dalton has been the starter. The contrast between Dalton, who overthrew a half-dozen receivers in the first half alone, and Luck, now in his third season at the helm of arguably the top passing offense in football, has never been more stark than it was by early evening Sunday. 

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Dalton took it hard, blaming himself for the loss and pledging to “figure out what it’s going to take to get over the hump.” Meanwhile, Luck, now a veteran of big performances in wild-card games, said the team’s 24-hour rule of celebrating wins for a day and then moving on is no longer in effect with former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the horizon.

“The preparation starts when the game ends because that’s a really good Denver team,” Luck said. "We’ll have our work cut out for us, but I think guys are excited and up for the challenge.”

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The Colts were able to do something Sunday they haven’t all season, including in their 31-24 loss at Denver in Week 1: score on their first possession. Luck hit running back Daniel "Boom" Herron out of the backfield twice for first downs on the opening drive and Herron, who has supplanted Trent Richardson as the starter in recent weeks, finished off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. From there, Indy’s defense leaned on the injury-depleted Bengals' offense. And early ankle injury for rookie running back Jeremy Hill all but crippled Hue Jackson’s run-first gameplan.

“[Scoring early] was very key,” said Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who came away with six catches for 103 yards despite several dropped passes. “We started to find our groove and got back to ourselves, made a couple plays early and basically did what we wanted to do all up the field.”

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For Hilton, Luck and coordinator Pep Hamilton (who boosted his already sterling résumé with Sunday’s performance) the competition stiffens next week against a Denver team that has allowed 79.8 rushing yards and 225.4 passing yards per game, 2nd- and 9th-best in football. But the media focus, as always, will be on the Manning-Luck rematch. Now 1-1 in games against the Colts' legend he replaced, Luck typically brushed off the storyline. “It’s not the quarterback versus quarterback thing,” he said. “We’re not on the field at the same time.”

Colts receiver Reggie Wayne was more blunt in brushing off Luck-Manning III.

“I’m not even worried about it right now,” he said. “It’s adult beverage time.”