Dynamic Luck guides Colts past Bengals
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first quarter in the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)
The comparisons won’t be fair or complete for years, but welcome to a week of talking about the young Colt of a quarterback and the veteran football stallion now in Bronco colours.
Andrew Luck took the next big stride forward in his career here Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, leading his Indianapolis Colts to a decisive 26-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in an AFC Wildcard matchup.
And now it’s on to a divisional round clash next Sunday in Denver where he will meet Peyton Manning - the man he replaced, the future Hall of Famer and the stallion running the dynamic Broncos offence.
“I’ve never been into the quarterback vs. quarterback thing, but I have a lot of respect for him, obviously,” Luck said after helping create a matchup the TV networks and NFL executives will love. “What he still does is amazing.
“He’s a stud, but I’ll worry about the Denver defence.”
It is sometimes easy to forget that Luck is just in his third season as a pro, but respect has to be building for him as well. On Sunday, against a Bengals defence that loaded up its defensive game plan to stop him, Luck completed 31 of 44 attempts for 376 yards.
The Colts QB got better as the game went on, too, the punctuation play being a 36-yard, scrambling touchdown strike to Donte Moncrief in the third quarter to open up a 10-point lead. Off the mark early, he was precision sharp when it mattered.
“Since (training) camp ended, he’s been focused and serious,” Moncrief said. “He’s a great leader on and off the field and he’s going to demand and get the best of you. That’s the great thing about him.”
In the past couple of weeks, Luck’s teammates have talked about a change in the 25-year-old. He’s been more vocal in meetings, more confident in the huddle. Like the best thoroughbreds, in his third season of competition, he’s starting to hit his top stride.
Luck certainly had some help on Sunday, most notably from a defence that blanked the Bengals in the second half, surely a confidence builder heading into the big meeting in Denver.
“We know we’re going to get their best,” Colts defensive end Corey Redding said. “We know Peyton is going to prepare and we know they are going to try to scheme against us.
“We have to stop them and get the ball back in the hands of 12 (Luck). As long as we do that, we’re going to be fine.”
There are still those who will be skeptical of that, of course. As Luck would have it, the imbalance of his success against poor teams is far more dramatic than against top-flight opponents. The Bengals fall more in the former category than the latter now that they’ve exited the playoffs in the first round for the fourth consecutive January and haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
They kept it close through the first half, though, by limiting two of the Colts drives to field goals and when a Mike Nugent 57-yarder glanced off the left upright and through in the final minute, it was a 13-10 score at halftime.
The Colts defence flexed its muscle in the second half, however, as the Andy Dalton-led Bengals offence couldn’t muster a first down on its first five possessions and were never threat to come back.
So now it’s on to Denver, where the reigning AFC champions opened as 7 1/2-point favourites.
“I’d like to think I’m more prepared this year than I was last year and in my rookie year,” Luck said. “The preparation for next week starts the moment this one ends.”
Whether the Colts can come up with a game plan that can allow them to step up against an elite opponent like the Broncos remains to be seen. But the blueprint Indy coach Chuck Pagano drew up on Sunday worked to perfection.
Given the struggles on his offensive line, Pagano replaced his team's running game with short passes.
Case in point was rookie running back Daniel Herron, who had 12 carries for 56 yards and one touchdown while grabbing 10 chain-moving receptions for 85 yards. That allowed Luck and the offence to gain confidence and eventually opened opportunities downfield.
The Colts are well aware of what’s coming next week - the questions, the storyline and the challenge. “It’s going to be for as long as they are in the league,” Redding said.
But they’ve got Luck on their side and after Sunday, like the opportunity it represents.
WHAT NOW FOR LEWIS?
Six strikes and is Marvin Lewis out?
After yet another trip to the post-season and yet another loss, the Cincinnati Bengals head coach will certainly be on the hot seat after Sunday’s 26-10 defeat.
The Bengals became the first team in NFL history to lose four consecutive first-round playoff games. The Cincy quarterback and popular post-season whipping boy, Andy Dalton, also lost his fourth in a row and tied Warren Moon for that inglorious distinction.
“Tomorrow is not promised for anyone, so that’s part of life in the NFL and what these guys have in the finality of losing in the playoffs,” said Lewis, who has now lost all six playoff games of his NFL head coaching career. “It’s disappointing, but I don’t know any other way.
“The ultimate thing is to keep playing and work towards a Super Bowl and we failed to get it done today.”
It didn’t help that the Bengals were without receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. That allowed the Colts to load up to stop what had become a dangerous Bengals running game.
Though the Bengals were closer than in the 27-0 regular-season loss here in October, once the second half began on Sunday, they were never a threat to score, let alone come back.
“I felt like I didn’t play good enough,” said Dalton, whose modest 18 completions on 35 attempts for 155 yards would back that up. “I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to push our guys to do more.
“We worked really hard to get to this point. You feel like you’ve got an opportunity again and it falls by the wayside. It’s tough from that standpoint.”
Who ya got next week?