Andrew Luck outdueled Peyton Manning during the Colts' 24-13 AFC Divisional Playoffs win.
Being an elite quarterback prospect can often be more of a burden than a gift. The road is well-littered with young men who, at one point in their lives or another, were thought to be the best quarterbacks in the country at whatever level. And for the most part, those young men flame out at some point, because the combination of expertise, mental acuity and situational fortune required to play this position at the highest level is very, very rare.
The Indianapolis Colts' 24-13 Sunday afternoon win over the Denver Broncos was compelling theater for those precise reasons. Fans and pundits saw two men who have overcome those crushingly negative odds and thrived despite the 'franchise quarterback' tag. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck seemed to be born with the ability to play the quarterback position. Both were properly groomed by fathers who played in the NFL and sought to combine their own knowledge with what they couldn't achieve as gifts for their sons. As a result, both players have lived up to their potential in ways that can only be described as special.
Manning walked off the Mile High Stadium turf knowing full well that his run was almost over, if not over completely, and that was the main story of the day. But it was Luck, Manning's replacement in every literal and figurative sense possible, who carried the weight of expectation with perfect composure. Luck completed 27 of 43 passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions that were basically arm punts. Denver's defense seemed helpless to stop him and his receivers (especially speedster T.Y. Hilton), and as Luck mowed through the defending AFC champions, you could feel a changing of the guard at the highest levels of the NFL.
Luck, selected first overall in the 2012 draft to a Colts team that had finished 2-14 the year before, has led his franchise to three straight 11-5 seasons and three straight playoff berths. And when we write that Luck has led, it's more meaningful in his case. He's never enjoyed a great running back in his backfield, has dealt with iffy offensive lines, has had one top-level receiver in Hilton and has had to outscore his opponents because of an average Colts defense. When he came into the league, he wasn't asked to manage the game; he was asked to define it as Manning had once done. And as Manning once did, Luck has done it, too.
Opponents have known, and thought they were ready for it. Broncos head coach John Fox had a pretty good bead on Luck going into this game, and described him very accurately this past week, but the defense designed by Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wasn't up to the challenge.
“I think what’s unique about Andrew is he’s not just mobile," Fox said Monday. "He can make the throws. You saw the throw he made yesterday stepping up in the pocket. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s not just a little scatback type. He’s got the playing strength to go along with the mobility, so I think he’s unique that way. What he’s accomplished may be better than any quarterback has ever accomplished early in a career to-date. I think he was pretty highly touted that way, and I think he’s been as advertised.”
The difference between this game and Denver's 31-24 Week 1 win over the Colts was the three touchdowns from Manning to tight end Julius Thomas in the second quarter. They were there then, but weren't there on Sunday. Luck played now as he did then, but this time he wasn't trailing when he threw two touchdown passes in a five-minute fourth-quarter stretch. This time, there was nothing in his way from the other side. And if you leave Luck that kind of opportunity, he will wax you and go home.
The great ones always do.
"Coach [Chuck] Pagano talked about it. If you prepare to win, you can earn that right to expect to win," Luck said after the game. "I think we've done that this week, and we've done that during the season. Obviously, things happen in games that you can't predict, but I think it's a solid foundation of guys on that team -- coaches, players, guys work their butts off every week and get team victories like this. I think we've fed off each other, and did one heck of a job."
True against the Broncos, but it's always been about Luck since he came into the NFL. While most in his position find the heights of expectation dizzying, he maintains his equilibrium, and keeps moving forward. It was that way when he threw a ridiculous 627 passes in his rookie season, it was that way as he kept growing through the team's sometimes questionable personnel moves, and it's that way now, as the NFL's leader in touchdown passes for the 2014 season looks to head into Foxboro next Sunday, hoping to knock off another all-time great in Tom Brady.
No matter what happens there, and no matter what holds true for the Colts in seasons to come, Andrew Luck has made it as clear as possible: He's arrived with a flourish.