FOXBOROUGH – Something doesn’t quite add up.
From Bill Belichick to every Patriots defensive player asked this week, there was nothing but praise showered on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck as New England prepared to face the Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium.
Belichick: “He’s been good. He was good. He is good. He does everything well.”
Defensive end Chandler Jones: “I really don’t see Andrew Luck as a young quarterback at all. I know this is his third year. But this guy, he plays like a veteran, and I’m pretty sure you guys see it as well. He’s a great quarterback.”
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork: “Luck is probably one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He’s a young stud. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.”
But for all of the plaudits — and privately, several defensive players confirmed they weren’t just blowing smoke — the Patriots haven’t had much trouble in three games against Luck.
The Patriots have won all three meetings against Luck, the top overall pick in the 2012 draft, by an average of 22.6 points. Combined, Luck is 70 for 130 (53.8 percent) for 968 yards, 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and one lost fumble against the Patriots.
|Nov. 18, 2012||Foxborough||59-24, L||27||50||54||334||2||3||6.7|
|Jan. 11, 2014||Foxborough||43-22, L||20||41||48.8||331||2||4||8.1|
|Nov. 16, 2014||Indianapolis||42-20, L||23||39||58.9||303||2||1||7.8|
Luck has gotten better with each season, and posted career highs in several categories as he led Indianapolis to another AFC South title. But turning the ball over — he had 16 interceptions and a league-high 13 fumbles, six of them lost, during the regular season — continues to be a problem.
Luck did not throw an interception in the wild-card round against Cincinnati, but he had two picks last week in Denver, though neither proved costly.
Taking advantage of Luck’s errors has been part of the Patriots’ success: in November, Luck had a first-half interception, when Darrelle Revis tipped a ball that Devin McCourty was able to grab out of the air, and New England turned it into a 14-3 lead, going on to a 42-20 road win.
Luck had a terrible game in the divisional round last year against the Patriots, completing less than 50 percent of his passes with four interceptions, the first coming on the third snap of the game. The Patriots scored 14 points off the turnovers in what became a rout.
When the teams met in November of Luck’s rookie year, he had three interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns.
Whether the Patriots’ pattern of good play continues on Sunday night boils down to one thing, players said: execution. For as talented as Luck is, and for as bright a future as many see for him, the Patriots know if they can execute as they’ve done in the past against him, they should be able to move on.
“[Luck’s] made huge improvements,” linebacker Akeem Ayers said. “They’ve gotten different guys on the offensive side of the ball, their running game’s picked up; I think that helps out a lot and as far as the running back catching passes out of the backfield, I think that was huge for them, too. I think he’s playing better than he played before and it’s just showed these past two weeks.”
“For a guy like Andrew Luck, our biggest thing is our execution,” Jones said. “They’re going to come out with a game plan and we’re going to do the same thing. It all boils down to who plays the best. That’s what we’re going to try to do on Sunday.”
The Colts still don’t have much in the way of a consistent running game — Daniel “Boom” Herron, who has started their two postseason games, had 63 yards on 23 carries against the Broncos last week, and 12 carries for 56 yards against the Bengals – which means the offense is still very much in Luck’s hands.
Luck is a threat to carry the ball or run to keep plays alive. At 6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds, his athleticism and strength are among his best traits, and he did take the ball into the end zone from 8 yards in Denver, only to see the touchdown wiped out by a penalty.
Containing Luck is “huge,” McCourty said. “For him, he’s so good in the pocket that you want to keep him there, but at the same time he can still hurt you, but then you realize when he gets outside of the pocket he’s even more dangerous because he can run.
“And then with his arm strength, he can throw over the top of the defense. Against Cincinnati, the throw he made to [Donte] Moncrief, he was actually kind of running through a tackle, too, as he threw the ball, and it was a perfect pass. I think you realize, especially in the secondary, how much harder it is to cover a guy when the play extends. We already know that and then when you’ve got a guy that can get the ball there perfectly it almost makes it impossible in some situations; I don’t know if Cincinnati could have covered it better.’’
But the Patriots have also figured out Luck the ballcarrier. He has five carries for 24 yards against New England, none longer than 7 yards.
Doing that takes discipline. And having each player do his job, a Belichick tenet.
“Everyone has got to do their job and play within the responsibilities of the defense,” Rob Ninkovich said. “[Luck] is a guy that’s extended plays in the past. He does a good job of breaking the pocket, getting out and looking for a guy downfield and making a good throw. You’re always conscious of that, to be under control and understand where he is and not let him go where he wants to go.”
Luck and the Colts want to go to the Super Bowl. So do the Patriots. Contain the “young stud” and New England can stamp its ticket.