This is the type of game that will live on in the memories of Colts fans everywhere. With it being the first weekend of breast cancer awareness month in the NFL, almost all the players and coaches were wearing splashes of pink throughout their uniforms, but it was a single pair of orange gloves that seemed to show up everywhere on the field. Orange is the official color of leukemia awareness.
This game will be memorable for the Colts for many reasons, most notably for the comparison of Chuck Pagano’s resiliency as he battles cancer to the resiliency of the Colts team facing an 18-point deficit at halftime. Calling the game from the NFL on FOX booth, you could feel the shift in energy as the Colts came out for the second half. Almost as if the players in the locker room looked each other in the eyes and said, if our coach is locked up in a hospital room in the fight of his life, the least we can do is fight our hardest out here on the football field.
The fans felt it too. Forget a playoff environment, the second half of this game had the raw emotion and energy of nothing short of a Super Bowl. The booth was literally rocking as the fans reacted to the Colts’ 16-point third quarter and an ensuing field goal early in the fourth to cap off a run of 19 unanswered points to take a one-point lead over the Packers with just eight minutes remaining in the game.
The Packers responded with a touchdown of their own, taking a five-point lead with just four minutes left of the clock.
Andrew Luck had already led his Colts to a fourth-quarter comeback against the Vikings in Week 2. In Week 3, he had given the Colts a one-point lead with just 56 seconds left only to see it nullified by a fluke 80-yard touchdown pass from the Jags a play later. So even with one comeback win — and what should have been a second in just three career games — it was those final four minutes on Sunday that started the legend of Andrew Luck.
In the first half, it was almost as if Luck was back in his Stanford dorm room studying for a final exam. He stood back in the pocket studying just how Dom Capers’ defense would try and bait him into a mistake. He read blitz schemes and took mental notes of the Packers’ defensive front. He diagnosed coverages and banked images in his mind of weaknesses in the Packers’ secondary. Then in the second half, and more importantly, on that final drive, he used everything he had learned over the course of the previous three quarters to ace his final exam.
His final exam was a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive that chewed up 3:55 of the game clock and gave his team a 30-27 lead with just 35 seconds remaining the game. This is how he got it done:
Poise in the pocket
After a bone-crushing hit earlier in the game at the hands of Packers rush-end Nick Perry, it would be completely understandable for a rookie quarterback to crumble into the fetal position when he felt the pocket collapsing around him. Not Andrew Luck. He stood tall all game and used his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame to extend plays much in the way Ben Roethlisberger does in Pittsburgh. Clay Matthews, one of the best pass rushers in the league, not only applied pressure, but even had his hand on Luck’s shoulder on that final drive, but Luck calmly shrugged him off and stepped into a dart down the field to Reggie Wayne. Luck isn’t just a phenomenal quarterback, he is a phenomenal athlete.
I’m not just talking about completion percentage. I’m talking about putting the ball on receivers even when coverage is tight. Luck actually can throw his receivers open. This was on full display on that final drive in which Luck hit Reggie Wayne for 15 yards on a 3rd-and-12 play. Wayne was in one-on-one coverage with Charles Woodson, but Woodson’s back was to the line of scrimmage. Luck zipped it in behind Woodson as Wayne broke back toward the throw. Five plays later, for the game-wining touchdown, he threw it on the back shoulder of Wayne on a quick slant as the defender was positioned very well on the upfield hip. On both of those plays, Wayne was covered, but because of the accuracy of Luck, he was able to throw him open.
Luck wasn’t doing this against the Vikings or the Jaguars, either. This was a comeback in which he outdueled the reigning MVP and supposed best quarterback in the NFL. He connected with Wayne for a career-high 212 yards receiving. Yes, Wayne’s career-best receiving yards game came courtesy of the arm of Andrew Luck and not Peyton Manning.
ChuckStrong tee-shirts and written messages to Pagano on white boards from the sidelines showed the raw emotion this team was carrying on Sunday. But that type of emotion can only carry a team so far. It surely gave them the boost to initiate the comeback in the third quarter, but it was the play of Andrew Luck that sealed the deal. So as Colts fans remember the exhilaration of winning this game in dedication to their coach, it will also be remembered as the beginning to Andrew Luck’s legendary status.