Pep Hamilton has been watching Andrew Luck craft comeback drives for so long that it doesn’t surprise him anymore.
Before the three fourth-quarter comebacks he orchestrated this regular season and the seven game-winning drives he had as a rookie last season, there was a triple-overtime game against Southern Cal back in 2011, when Hamilton was Luck’s position coach at Stanford.
When Luck threw a fourth-quarter pick-6 that put the Cardinal in a 34-27 hole with a little over three minutes left, you could almost see the stitching on Stanford’s 7-0 start fraying.
Luck then pulled the strings on a 10-play, 76-yard march, completing 4 of 6 passes and scrambling 16 yards, plays that set up the tying touchdown.
“Three overtimes later, he made some big plays and he willed his team to victory,” Hamilton said.
Two things about that drive are as telling as anything about Luck, both then and now.
First, the interception gnawed at him.
“I was very disappointed in myself,” Luck said at the time. “For a couple of seconds, I wanted to go dig a hole and bury myself in it.”
Second, he knew he had to put it behind him — fast.
“I was so happy to still see time on the game clock,” he said. “It was another chance to get out there.”
Coming off a 443-yard, four-touchdown magic show in a 45-44 come-from-behind win over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend, Hamilton could point to those same two aspects of Luck’s makeup as the reason he’s been able to put together so many comebacks in his short professional career.
“I think it’s his ability to really have amnesia as far as what happened the previous play and to move on and learn from your mistakes but not dwell on it,” Hamilton said. “That’s the only way that you can bounce back and really have the focus and then have the nerve to continue to make those throws that he made.”
Luck has done it so much that in just his second season, his presence in the huddle is enough to make teammates believe that no deficit is insurmountable.
This season, the Colts found themselves down 3 in the fourth quarter to Oakland (Luck led an 11-play, 80-yard game-winning drive), down 5 to Seattle (Luck put together a 14-play, 70-yard march to seal it), and down 12 to Houston (with seven plays over two drives, Luck put the Colts back in the driver’s seat).
If there’s a common thread through each comeback, it’s Luck’s poise.
The moment never overwhelms him. If anything, Hamilton said, Luck finds himself having to settle down.
“I think if anything, there have been games in the past where he’s gotten so excited before the game that you almost want him to temper that emotion,” Hamilton said. “He approaches the game like a linebacker. He wants to hit somebody.
“He wants to get out and be a part of it to get his blood flowing. There’s never been a time where I felt like his confidence was shaken. He’s always had a fighter’s spirit, that spirit of a guy that is going to pull everybody up and atone, as he would say, for the mistake that he made.”
The intangible confidence that trickles down to teammates is similar to what makes the Patriots believe in Tom Brady.
“You look to guys like that,” said Colts running back Trent Richardson. “Stuff that [Luck’s] done, situations that he’s gotten us out of. When you’ve got a guy like Andrew who’s doing all things right and everything he can do to be that guy to lead us, you’ve got to look to him to be like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be that guy.’ ”
When the Colts decided to part ways with Peyton Manning, Luck became the face of the franchise and also the face of change.
Since being taken first overall in the 2012 NFL draft, he’s done nothing but prove Colts owner Jim Irsay right, taking Indy to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.
Some of Brady’s greatest battles were against Luck’s predecessor. But Brady said he expects this to be one of several run-ins with Luck.
“Peyton’s been one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL,” Brady said. “I was fortunate to be able to watch him play for a lot of years and certainly compete against him with the Colts. Andrew, I’ve only really competed against him one time. He’s obviously off to a great start in his career. His team really thrives on his leadership.
“He’s a great player and a great young quarterback. He obviously has all the ability. Our defense has got to be up for the challenge. There’s no lead that’s too safe against the Colts, as was evidenced last week against K.C.”
The Patriots will be a different animal. Luck knows as much from his only encounter with them last season.
Between the three interceptions, the strip sack, and the overall humiliation of a 59-24 loss at Gillette Stadium, it was one of Luck’s toughest lessons as a rookie.
Even if just for practical reasons, watching tape of that game in preparation for Saturday night’s divisional-round matchup against the Patriots was inevitable.
He had to watch Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard take two of his passes the other way for touchdowns. Looking back, neither of those throws were a thing of beauty.
The first one fluttered like a plane with a blown engine down the middle of the field. Talib gladly put it out of its misery.
On the second, Dennard had a good read on an out-route.
On the sideline, Luck was as upset as anyone.
At that point, it didn’t matter that he was a rookie quarterback getting his first look at a team that had been the NFL’s standard-bearer for practically a decade.
The Colts were 6-3 and so were the Patriots, so when interim head coach Bruce Arians tried to settled Luck down on the sideline, there was no use. Luck was cursing mad.
But there was a lesson learned.
“I think they did a great job of creating turnovers, forcing turnovers,” Luck said. “I know they still do. They do a great job of getting at the quarterback, making it hard to get a first down, hard to get touchdowns. We know it’s going to be a dogfight [Saturday], and we’re looking forward to it. That’s what the playoffs are about.”
In the Colts locker room, there’s a general sense that Luck has picked up so much since the last Patriots matchup that he wouldn’t let it happen again.
“To me, Andrew is a stud in any game that we play,” tight end Coby Fleener said. “But I think there’s a level of comfort that comes with having played a year under his belt, and now kind of technically two years under his belt.
“The more he understands what’s expected of him as an NFL quarterback, the more he understands the offense, the more he understands simple things like where’s the lunch room at in the building, the more comfortable he can be.”
In the 14 months since his last trip to Gillette Stadium, Luck said he’s improved so many of the things the Patriots were able to capitalize on when he was a rookie.
“I’d like to think I’ve improved hopefully in all areas,” Luck said. “Situational awareness, you know, when to throw it away, don’t want to force something. Knowing when to avoid taking a hit. I’d like to think I’ve improved there. Understanding some of the tips and disguises of a defense and how to get those tells.”
After watching Luck throw for 3,822 yards and 23 touchdowns and lead the Colts to their second straight 11-win season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn’t see many holes in Luck’s game.
“A really complete player,” Belichick said. “Great long-ball thrower. Very accurate. Has a good touch on short, intermediate passes. Reads defenses well. Does a good job checking plays at the line of scrimmage and making some of those adjustments. Active in the pocket.
“Hard guy to tackle. Hard guy to bring down. Good feet. Can scramble and run. Can scramble and buy time to throw. Has good vision down the field. Makes good decisions. There’s not really any weaknesses to his game.”
Luck’s greatest strength might be that he never thinks a game is over. So should he find himself in another gigantic hole to the Patriots, he’ll do what he’s always done: Look at the clock and get to work.
“We know it’s going to be a dogfight, and we’re looking forward to it,” Luck said. “That’s what the playoffs are about.”