INDIANAPOLIS — Well now he’s gone and done it. Andrew Luck may go on to have a long and storied NFL career, with a bevy of postseason victories and stirring comebacks to his credit before he hangs up his helmet for the final time. But he may never top what he wrought in his first career playoff win, an epic rally from a 28-point second-half deficit Saturday evening at a delirious Lucas Oil Stadium.
Good luck, indeed, Andrew. The second-year Indianapolis Colts‘ quarterback just authored one of the most improbable victories in NFL history, and the 45-44 first-round conquest of the devastated Kansas City Chiefs will be a tough act to follow in so many ways.
Soak all this in from Indy’s first playoff win since the 2009 AFC Championship Game, a memorable victory that snapped the franchise’s three-game postseason losing streak:
Luck overcame three interceptions to throw for 443 yards and four touchdowns, and rush seven times for 45 vital yards. He scored the touchdown that drew the Colts within three points in the fourth quarter on a heads-up 5-yard fumble recovery and return, and he put Indianapolis into the lead for the first and only time in the game, dropping a dime on the streaking T.Y. Hilton from 64 yards out with 4:21 remaining.
With Indy down 38-10 early in the third quarter, the Colts’ rally represented the second largest in NFL playoff history, topped only by the Buffalo Bills‘ 32-point overtime comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 playoffs. The only other 28-point comeback in any NFL game was San Francisco’s 38-35 overtime defeat of New Orleans in 1980.
That’s it. That’s what Luck just checked off his bucket list. Quite a way to even one’s career playoff record at 1-1. “One for the ages,” as Colts head coach Chuck Pagano so aptly put it. “Never seen anything quite like it.”
The No. 4-seeded Colts (12-5) looked dead in the water when Luck threw an interception — his second of the game — on the first play of the second half, and then watched as Kansas City took advantage of the mistake three plays later to push its lead to 38-10 on a 10-yard Alex Smith pass to running back Knile Davis. Playing without its best offensive weapon in dual-threat running back Jamaal Charles, who left on the first Chiefs drive of the game with a concussion, Kansas City was dominating a Colts team that had beaten it by 16 points just two weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium. The fifth-seeded Chiefs (11-6) scored the first five times they touched the ball, and six times out of seven. The rout was on.
Then Luck happened. And his burgeoning reputation for the clutch, fourth-quarter comeback just soared to ridiculous new heights.
“He has the stuff that makes legends,” said Colts veteran outside linebacker Robert Mathis, whose third-quarter strip-sack of Smith was maybe the key play that launched the Indy comeback, coming with the Chiefs leading 38-17 and driving into Colts territory with 9:00 left in the third. “That was a legendary performance he put on today. We jump on his back and he just leads us to wherever we need to go.”
Luck’s teammates and coaches have seen him work his miracles before, but never like this, on this large a stage. It was his seventh career win after trailing by double-digits in a game. And while it took Peyton Manning until his sixth season in Indianapolis to win his first playoff game (after three one-and-done playoff trips), Luck just beat that record by a considerable margin. And he did it in a fashion that no one will ever forget.
“Guys like him are just wired differently,” Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. “He just keeps playing. No matter what. There are a lot of quarterbacks, when they throw three interceptions, they’re scared to throw the ball after that. They’re scared to pull the trigger. They go back under center scared to death of the bad stuff happening.
“Not this guy. This guy gets mad at himself, and you see his eyes get focused and he says, ‘We are going to go on a drive, right now.’ That’s just a rare quality. Lot of guys shrink back and go, ‘Oh, boy. I don’t want to make another mistake.’ But this guy takes his anger and aggression and makes something good happen. That’s a great quality to have in a quarterback.”
Luck’s quality to produce whatever his club needs at that moment, whatever it will take to get the job done, was perfectly illustrated by his recovery of a fumble by Colts running back Donald Brown at the K.C. 2-yard-line early in the fourth quarter. He was Andrew on the Spot, picking up the loose ball after it had bounced off the back of center Samson Satele‘s helmet, and basically diving into the end zone from five yards out. Instead of a devastating turnover that could have ended the Colts’ comeback and taken all the air out of the stadium, Indianapolis had the crucial touchdown that made it a one-score game, at 41-38 with 10:38 to play.
“That’s when you think it’s meant for us,” Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea said of the fortuitous bounce and Luck’s quick reaction. “I was thinking, ‘It’s meant for us.'”
Brown was thinking: Thank God for Andrew Luck.
“Yeah, that’s exactly how we drew it up,” said Brown, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Off the helmet, right into Luck’s hands, a one-hopper. It’s tough to practice that play, but that’s why we’re professionals. But seriously, it was just a great play by him. This will probably go down as one of those NFL Instant Classic playoff games.”
No probably about it. The teams combined for 89 points, the third-most in playoff history, a playoff-record 1,049 yards of total offense, 58 first downs, with 59 passes completed on 91 attempts. There were only three punts in the game, two of those by Kansas City, and the Colts and Chiefs managed to score nine touchdowns in 11 red-zone opportunities. But when the smoke cleared, it was the Colts who were moving on to next week’s divisional round (against No. 1 Denver and Peyton Manning if Cincinnati beats visiting San Diego on Sunday).
“We hope this is not the highest of the highs, like every team in the playoffs,” Luck said. “Going to enjoy this game for what it is, but we don’t want the journey to end next weekend. It’s going to be two phenomenal football teams, whatever one we face [either Denver or New England]. Just happy to win [this one].”
As for the Chiefs, their playoff losing streak has now reached eight games, over a span of 20 years, with seven consecutive one-and-done playoff trips. None more maddening or excruciating than this one.
“Probably would have thought [44 points] would have been enough,” said Smith, the first-year Chiefs quarterback who had a remarkably good game, completing 30-of-46 passes for 378 yards, with four touchdowns, no interceptions, one fumble lost and a 119.7 passer rating. “But they found a way to make enough plays in the end and we didn’t in the fourth quarter. … [But] when you get these opportunities, you don’t know how often they’re going to come or when the next one is going to be, and you just try to go and make the most of it. Unfortunately for us we just didn’t get it done today.”
There was certainly plenty of credit to go around in Indy’s locker room, and you can’t overlook the heroic game turned in by second-year Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, who hauled down a team-playoff-record 13 passes for 224 yards, with two touchdowns, including the game-winner. But this was Luck’s moment, and if not a masterpiece, his game announced that he has fully arrived as an elite quarterback in the NFL.
“One of the things I asked him in the quarterback meeting this week was … ‘What’d you learn from last year? What do you remember about our playoff loss?'” Christensen said, of Indy’s 24-9 loss at Baltimore in the first round last season. “He said, ‘I remember how long it took to get over it. How hard a playoff loss is to shake.’ I think it was just in his mind, ‘Hey, you don’t get these opportunities often.’ That’s why he said to me just now, ‘I was so mad at myself out there, throwing interceptions. Because you work so hard to get in the playoffs and then here I am laying an egg.’
“But the good thing is he got mad and didn’t self-destruct like the average guy does. He goes out and starts chunking [yardage] and throwing punches and body blows and then sees what happens. I think it’s pretty darn special stuff.”
Pretty darn special, and pretty darn difficult to top. Luck could play a very long time and never have another victory quite so sweet. But this much is now certain: When he’s at quarterback, no matter the score, we’ll never stop watching.