Andrew Luck shows growth in playoff win

Colts quarterback provides proof in Sunday's AFC Wild Card triumph that he's learned from playoff games past, when the passer made too many risky throws and was intercepted.

Andrew Luck showed maturity in his second career NFL playoff victory on Sunday.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback looked over a Cincinnati Bengals defense and saw the opposition taking away the deeper throws. Sometimes, great passers are known to ignore the reads and take chances anyway.

Luck didn’t do that unless it was ideal. He had a few open receivers deep, but the Colts dropped at least five passes in the 26-10 AFC Wild Card playoff victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

So the third-year pro, more often than not, resorted to the safe play. He didn’t make too many risky ones, conscious of what turnovers can mean in a win-or-go-home situation.

No turnovers and the yards piled up. Luck finished with 376. He completed 31-of-44 passes, 10 of those to running back Daniel Herron, which tied for fourth in franchise playoff history. On the game’s opening possession, Luck hit Herron twice for 26 yards, Herron ripped off a 27-yard run and the quarterback completed a crucial third-and-7 play with an 8-yard strike to tight end Dwayne Allen. Herron scored on a 2-yard run to give the Colts the early lead.

That’s how much of Luck’s day would go. Except for one memorable moment that changed the game. Ahead 13-10 in the third quarter, Luck scrambled from the pocket on a broken second-and-10 play. Bengals pass rusher Carlos Dunlap was starting to bring him down when Luck unloaded a bullet on target to rookie Donte Moncrief for a 36-yard score.

Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri was watching on the sideline and, like everyone else, couldn’t have been more impressed.

“Andrew is an amazing player obviously,” said Vinatieri, 42, who has won Super Bowls with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. “When you have him on your team, you have opportunities to win games because he makes things happen.

“There’s times, in this game in particular, he’s scrambling for his life, he throws the ball in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Huge swing of momentum. Huge play. He can make amazing things happen.”

This wasn’t the Luck that turned the ball over 31 times in the regular season, nor the guy who was intercepted seven times in two playoff games last January.

“Andrew threw the heck out of the ball,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said.

The Colts make their share of mistakes. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton dropped three passes he normally catches, two of them long-range shots when Luck tried to take advantage of one-on-one coverage. Penalties also set the Colts back, including a Moncrief block-in-the-back call that wiped out a Luck 18-yard TD pass to tight end Coby Fleener late in the third quarter.

The setbacks didn’t faze the Colts’ leader, though.

“He was outstanding and he just took what they gave him,” Pagano said of Luck. “That’s why ‘Boom’ (Herron) was targeted 11 times, and 10 catches looking at the stat sheet. They wanted to defend and they weren’t going to let our game-wreckers get behind them so there was a bunch of things underneath and he did a great job and he bought time.”

A shuffled offensive line was the Colts’ 11 different starting combination this season. But Luck was sacked only once. And the Bengals didn’t get much pressure on him unless they blitzed. When Cincinnati brought extra rushers, that gave Luck chances to make plays. The Bengals blitzed on the TD throw to Moncrief.

“‘Boom’ did a great job of aborting his fake on the play-action, going to pick up the safety,” Luck said of a Herron block. “I sort of stepped up in the crease there, saw Donte running his butt off and tried to put it in a spot where only he could get it.”

Again, even in a tense moment, Luck kept his wits about him and didn’t risk the turnover. But he still made a big-time play.

“It’s not surprising,” wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. “We see him do stuff like that all the time. He’s stronger than people think. He has a nice, young arm and he can make all the throws.

“I’ve been saying since day one, I think he throws better when he’s on the run. For him to shake those guys off and still put the ball on the money where onlY Donte can catch the ball is outstanding. I’m definitely blessed and happy to have him as my teammate.”

Luck was asked if he played better in this game than his first NFL playoff victory, when he led the Colts back from a 28-point, third-quarter deficit to a 45-44 AFC Wild Card win over the Kansas City Chiefs at home last January. He completed 29-of-45 passes for 443 yards with four TDs and three interceptions in that game.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I’m more prepared this year than I was last year, as well as my rookie year.

“You hate to compare games from last year. I think things are different. I think the playoffs are when you realize you know if you win, that’s good. If you lose, you’re at home. That’s what matters.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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