Andrew Luck doesn’t overthink much.
If he did, maybe the New England Patriots would be in the quarterback’s head.
The Indianapolis Colts quarterback didn’t need to be reminded Wednesday of his humbling history against coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Three losses by an average of 26 points, including 43-22 in an AFC Divisional playoff game last January at Foxborough, Mass. And Luck has thrown eight interceptions in those games.
But Luck isn’t dwelling on the past as he prepares for Sunday’s visit to Gillette Stadium and the first AFC Championship Game of his three-year NFL career.
He was asked if it was difficult to block out those games, a 59-24 loss at New England during the 2012 regular season, last postseason’s 21-point road loss and a 42-20 drubbing in front of a Sunday Night Football audience on Nov. 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium?
“I don’t think so,” Luck said. “I think after all of those games, you sort of move on and you move onto the next one. That hasn’t ‘grinded' on me, in a sense, on my mind this week. You do look back on the film and try and glean some information about scheme, glean some things like that. It’s a new game and a new opportunity.”
Luck has learned rather quickly what the top-seeded Patriots are about. As much as the Colts pride themselves in a winning tradition, New England has set the standard for nearly two decades. This is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s 28th playoff start and ninth AFC Championship Game in 15 seasons. The 37-year-old passer has won five of them.
Belichick and Brady have celebrated three Super Bowl victories together. And Belichick has two more rings from his days as a New York Giants defensive coordinator.
It’s often said that Belichick’s mastery of Xs and Os forces foes to try to beat him left-handed. Luck knows this from experience.
“They do a great job of taking away your strengths in a sense,” the quarterback said. “They are not going to let you get easy yards, easy first downs, easy points. Every down is a chess match, is a battle. They do a great job of scheming and they do a great job and great players. There’s a bunch of studs out there – their back end is loaded with guys who can play football, they can rush the passer, two stud inside linebackers. They create a lot of problems.”
This is how it used to be with Luck’s predecessor, Peyton Manning. The Patriots beat Manning and the Colts 10 of the first 12 meetings, including twice in the playoffs. That finally changed in the 2005 regular season, when Manning won for the first time at New England, beginning a stretch of five victories in seven meetings.
It obviously takes time against the Patriots. Luck is hopeful he’s learned enough to be prepared to make Sunday his team’s time, although the Colts are seven-point underdogs, the same as when they went to Denver and defeated Manning and the Broncos 24-13 in Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff game.
“Obviously, experience helps,” Luck said. “As a team, every game you can get closer and closer as a unit. As an offensive unit, as a unit as a whole, I think we’re more prepared to handle the unknown, handle the unexpected. I think with all these practices, guys just keep getting better every day, every game and every day. Hopefully, we can go out and get a win.”
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano asserts both teams have changed from the previous meetings, not that they’ve forgotten them.
“Well, we certainly understand and know what happened in those prior games,” Pagano said. “They really don’t have any relevance on this game as far as we’re concerned. (I) really feel like our team is playing as good as it’s played all season long, especially in the playoffs; especially with our win against Cincinnati and then our win last Sunday against Denver.
“We’re a confident bunch right now. I like where we’re at in all three phases and we’ve got to play better, like I said, in all three phases in order to give ourselves a chance to win. I think they’re a different team, we’re a different team right now.”
Pagano asserted that part of Luck clicking with the offense has to do with how the quarterback’s body has held up this season.
“Right now, he probably feels as good as he’s ever felt,” the coach said. “He was quoted the other day as we were messing around in the quarterback room and I was hanging out with those guys, and he said this is the best he’s ever felt physically at this point in the season. He’s done a great job taking care of himself and taking care of his body. He’s got a great routine that he sticks to and he said, ‘I feel like right now I could start training camp all over again.’ You don’t find many guys that could say that right now. He’s playing at a high level and we need him to continue to do that.”
Like last week, quarterback comparisons are inevitable. Luck typically hasn’t offered much other than compliments when the media has mentioned Manning, although he understood the storyline. A question about what kind of benchmark it would be to defeat Brady on this stage prompted a predictable response from a guy who only seems to say “I” when apologizing for his mistakes.
“In my mind, that’s not a benchmark, I guess – it’s about the Colts hopefully beating the Patriots,” Luck said. “It is a team game. I’ve never viewed it as quarterback versus quarterback. Obviously, he’s a stud out there. I have the utmost respect for what he does, what he’s done and what he still does. He’s a great role model for any quarterback at any level playing the position, but it’s a team game. To me, it’s as simple as that.”
The Colts probably played their most complete game against an elite opponent in Denver. To run this gauntlet and pull off another upset on the road against New England might require an even stronger performance.
Luck acknowledges the team has come together in January after some ugly double-digit losses in the regular season. But he admits players and coaches are still focused on the mistakes and trying to improve, even after the franchise’s first road playoff victory since 2007.
“Obviously, you’re winning, which is great, but I think guys are critical of themselves and as an offense critical of ourselves as far as, ‘Hey, if we can do more and do it better, let’s make sure we do it,’” he said. “Whether it’s watching practice, during practice or the previous game, I think we’re always trying to get better.”
He mentions the veteran leadership of wide receiver Reggie Wayne, former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, outside linebacker Robert Mathis and backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for keeping the Colts centered on what’s important. Mathis hasn’t played a snap this season due to suspension and a season-ending injury, but he’s still an influence.
And it’s important that the Colts’ younger players listen to them, including Luck.
“(We have) a great group of young guys who are willing to listen, sort of open their ears and keep their mouths shut. I know that’s what I did. I still do (laughs),” he said. “When those guys talk, you better listen because they’ve been successful for a reason.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.