No Perfect Endings, Just Luck
The heir to Peyton Manning didn't believe the hype. To Andrew Luck, Sunday night's showdown wasn't about storylines, just football. And with the world focused on the other QB, he delivered a gem. Plus, more Week 7 thoughts
Soaking in what happened Sunday and what those happenings mean:
Wild-Card wonderment. It’s early. Nine games left is an eternity, etc., blah, blah, blah. But Kansas City’s win and Denver’s loss sets up at least the prospect of K.C. winning the AFC West and the Broncos being a wild card—likely the fifth seed. In that scenario Denver would play at the fourth seed. Maybe Cincinnati. Maybe Indianapolis or New England. Could you take a weekend rematch, Peyton Manning at Andrew Luck? Or Peyton Manning at Tom Brady for the 867th time? (The 866th: Nov. 24 in Foxboro.) Come to think of it, Denver at Cincinnati would be a pretty big letdown.
Sam Bradford’s done for the year; the Rams probably are too. Bradford got waylaid on a scramble out of bounds at Carolina, and an MRI back in St. Louis Sunday night revealed he tore his ACL. A shame, seeing how Bradford, completing 61 percent of his throws with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions, was playing well even if his team wasn’t, and this season was a good time to get Bradford and his young receivers clicking together. No more. Next Monday—assuming the World Series isn’t a four-game sweep by either Boston or St. Louis—a strange doubleheader will be played in downtown St. Louis. At 7:07 p.m. Central Time, World Series Game 5 is scheduled at Busch Stadium. At 7:40 p.m. Central Time, the Rams will host the Seahawks; backup Kellen Clemens, Bernie Kosar’s favorite quarterback, will sub for Bradford, presumably. I mention this because the locals will be all-in on the Cards, the best hope for a St. Louis championship, and likely will view the Rams as a lost cause yet again and leave quite a few seats empty. In Week 4 the Rams got their clocks cleaned in a prime-time home game against the Niners. Now, in Week 8, more of the same wouldn’t be surprising. Another nationally televised debacle? Not good for the future of football in that town.
A killer Sunday for injuries. As I spoke by phone to Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips about his late father, Bum Phillips, Sunday from Kansas City, we were interrupted. “I am sorry,’’ Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles said to Phillips. “I wasn’t trying to hurt him.’’ Wade Phillips said he knew Charles was trying to make a clean play when he blocked linebacker Brian Cushing from the side and seemed to cave in his rehabbed reconstructed left knee. Also for the Texans, Arian Foster left with a bad hamstring. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler (groin), Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) and Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) could miss significant time. The Texans, on a five-game losing streak, already were in a lost season. If Cutler is gone long in Chicago, the Bears could be headed down the same road.
And, of course, there was that game in Indianapolis.
There’s not a more perfect Manning II than Luck.
You love perfect endings in sports. Entering Sunday night, a perfect ending felt like Peyton Manning being feted in Indianapolis pre-game, dueling it out with his heir, Andrew Luck, and then leading his new team to a thrilling win over his old team. But Ronnie Hillman doesn’t fumble at the 3 in perfect endings, and Pat Angerer doesn’t intercept tipped wounded ducks in perfect endings. There was something fulfilling about the new boss beating the old boss Sunday night, and the new boss not really caring about the narrative America had been obsessed with in the days before the Colts and Broncos met Sunday night. One of Luck’s good friends, tight end and former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener, told me as much a couple of hours after the Colts’ 39-33 victory.
“This game, to Andrew, wasn’t about proving himself,’’ Fleener said from Indianapolis. “One of the things I think Andrew loves about football is it’s a meritocracy. You’ve got to go out and prove yourself over and over, and for him it’s about proving himself to his teammates and his coaches—not to you and Bob Costas. And it’s not him versus Peyton. Never has been, never will.’’
After the game, Luck deflected all the praise, and all the meaning of the game, and he was most emotional—anguished, it seemed—about missing a throw to Reggie Wayne, with Wayne, contorting himself trying to make a tough catch, hurting his knee. How hurt, we don’t know. “It stinks to the nth degree,’’ said Luck. “I put a lot of blame on myself for missing that throw.”
This game was won as much by the Indianapolis defense (more about Vontae Davis and Robert Mathis in a moment) as it was won by Luck. But in the end, to Luck, it was about normalcy, and about not ever making football any more than it is: a test of 11 against 11. The inflammatory quotes and big Wednesday and Thursday stories … If those things hype the game and boost the ratings, great. But it’s nothing Luck involves himself with, and nothing Luck feels has a bit to do with the outcome of any game. “I think we kept our focus. We didn’t let the outside sphere of influence creep into the locker room, which I think is a testament to the guys,’’ Luck said.
Meritocracy. Outside sphere of influence. Stanford words. Reminds me of the NFL scouting combine in 2012, when I found out Luck’s favorite book was Papillon, and he eschewed cable TV for his first two years of college. Didn’t have time for it; too much else to do. “Don’t go making me into a nerd,’’ he said. Or the time, on his first NFL road trip, he reminded quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen that Chicago is a great architecture city.
So, for Luck, what happened Sunday night wasn’t going to fit into our neat idea of a sportswriting narrative, no matter what happened. As Fleener said: “There was no end of a movie here tonight. We won. We’re happy. But it wasn’t our Super Bowl. It’s not going to define our season or anything like that.”
This game turned not on a play by Luck, but on one by Mathis, the longtime Manning teammate who, on this night, was his tormentor. Midway through the second quarter, Mathis showed how much Denver missed left tackle Ryan Clady. His backup, Chris Clark, was turnstiled by Mathis—the NFL sack leader with 11.5—who blindsided Manning near his own goal line. The strip-sack forced the ball out, and it bounced into the end zone, and a safety resulted. Those were the first two of 23 straight Indianapolis points. Luck led three straight touchdown drives, and by the time Manning started the comeback midway through the third quarter, it was 33-14.
Luck would be the first to tell you he had help, and not only from Mathis. Davis played the best game of his 14-month Colts tenure. The Colts were brutish with the graceful Denver wide receivers, and never let them get comfortable. “Our game plan was to be physical with their wide receivers, and if we got some flags thrown on us, so be it,’’ Davis told me after the game. “They’re pretty much a dink-and-dunk passing game, so what we tried to do is disrupt that. And we got a lot of help from our pass rush. Robert [Mathis], he’s playing like he’s 22, not 32.”
Manning and Luck shared a five-second moment after the game. Circumstances have thrown them together in history. They may never be close friends, but they will be admirers. Manning was gracious in defeat, praising the Colts and their fans and the defense, and he seemed to get prickly only when reminded that he threw some wobbly passes in the game. “I throw a lot of wobbly passes,’’ he said. “A lot of wobbly TDs too.”
Luck finished mistake-free (21 of 38, 228 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions or turnovers), and didn’t appear to be affected either before or during the game by the magnitude of it. “I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary from what I always see with Andrew,’’ said Fleener. “A lot of quarterbacks, I guess, would feel they have to do something out of the ordinary on a night like this. But Andrew understands it’s going to be his play on the field, and nothing else, that will determine his success.”
And that’s why Indianapolis should feel like the luckiest city in the NFL this morning.