When analyzing the NFL playoffs, the outcomes typically come down to a few all-important factors.
The team that plays better and doesn’t turn the ball over usually wins.
The team with home-field advantage has a distinct edge and usually plays better.
And the team whose big-name players deliver the most set the tone for everyone else, and that usually means a “W.”
I mention the obvious to set up another reality — the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) will need a solid effort from quarterback Andrew Luck to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) in Sunday’s AFC Wild Card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Because Luck had 22 turnovers this season, some have questioned his third-season contributions, seemingly forgetting the fact that he passed for a career-high 4,761 yards and 40 TDs and was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. And he did all this despite being sacked 27 times and taking 90 hits.
I don’t care about those who are quick to criticize him. Every time I see a story that questions if he’s an elite NFL quarterback, the laptop fingers tap the keys to move on. Analyzing Luck’s evolution and where he stands among the NFL’s best quarterbacks is meaningless. Seriously, it is. That anyone would question where he is in his third season compared to veterans like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning should tell you something.
It’s as if more is expected of Luck, regardless of what he does. The guy even gets criticized for receiving too much praise. Go figure.
First and foremost, this game is about wins. That’s what Luck cares about more than anything, and he’s won 33 regular-season games in three years. He won a playoff game in his second postseason start, something that Peyton Manning didn’t do until his fourth postseason start.
That’s all that matters come Sunday. Did Luck do well enough to lead his team to a win over the Bengals?
Luck started taking more ownership of his offense last postseason. He proved during the regular season that he could minimize turnovers as the Colts had the fewest in the league. Then he threw seven interceptions in two playoff games.
Growing pains, folks. When asked to do more and throw the ball as much as he did, there are going to be more mistakes. The Colts are playing stronger teams, too. It’s not going to be as easy. It’s the law of averages. And losing at New England in January, have we not seen that for a long time?
That doesn’t excuse his “bonehead” decisions, as he’s described them. But I’ve seen a guy continually striving to do more for his team. And it’s a team with obvious shortcomings that needs him to do more.
The Colts didn’t play well down the stretch. They weren’t playing their best football when January arrived. A lot went into that, but Luck is quick to point the finger at himself. That’s part of being a leader. And that’s the way he should be. The reality is this offense hasn’t been the same with running back Ahmad Bradshaw lost for the season and wide receiver Reggie Wayne getting hurt in the 27-0 home win over the Bengals on Oct. 19.
Even that can’t matter to Luck. No excuses. He keeps plugging along. As defensive end Cory Redding observed, the quarterback is often the first to arrive at the complex and one of the last players to leave. Manning used to be like that, too, so much so that center Jeff Saturday used to tease No. 18 about it.
Like Manning, Luck is a sponge. He’ll learn something from each experience. And even with the big numbers good and bad this season, I’m convinced his best is yet to come — if he doesn’t get hurt.
That learning curve can be accelerated if the Colts ever find the right combination on the offensive line. Remember how Manning was sacked just 10 times in 2009? Manning was sacked an average of 17 times per season in his Colts career. Luck’s seasonal average is 33.
Luck would also benefit from having a stronger run game. Anything modestly successful would help. The way it is now, if I’m a defender, I never bite on a Colts play-action fake to a running back. You’re not worried about the Colts running the ball down your throat.
Throw that all out, though, and it’s still on Luck. And he knows it. He’s been more vocal this season. Redding, tight end Coby Fleener and others have seen and heard it. Luck explained this week that it was just part of his maturation, and he added that he understands it’s just as important to listen to others when speaking his mind.
Hopefully the Colts will have several players step up and make plays against the Bengals. Luck wouldn’t have that playoff win over Kansas City if wide receiver T.Y. Hilton didn’t get open repeatedly. And as poorly as the defense played in that game, it got the final stop to preserve the 45-44 AFC Wild Card playoff victory.
But when all is said and this game is done, we’ll undoubtedly base so much of our outcome perspective on how Andrew Luck played. That’s the NFL. Quarterbacks are key.
He’s a leader. He knows this. And whether the Colts win or lose starts and finishes with him.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.