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Cheat Sheet: Luck rises above rest

Image: Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck (© Michael Conroy/AP Images)
Andrew Luck has surpassed expectations.
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Around Week 4 last season, I started hearing the term “Suck for Luck” thrown around by my Dolphins fan buddies. Miami was 0-3 and going nowhere fast. Coming off a 17-16 loss to the equally miserable Browns, their collective train of thought was as follows:

1. Tank the rest of the season.

2. Draft Andrew Luck first overall.

3. Go to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl a few years later.

The fancy know-it-all sports writer that I am, I arrogantly shook my head and told them how foolish and naïve that thinking was. Luck, no matter how polished he appeared in his college games, was going to endure a rude awakening in his first NFL season. Peyton Manning, arguably the most polished college football quarterback of all-time, went 3-13 in his rookie year. Cam Newton, for all his eye-popping numbers as a rookie, went 6-10 in 2011.

Oh, silly naïve NFL fan. You and your blind optimism. So cute. But so foolish.

Sure enough, “Suck for Luck” became a nationally recognized term right up there with “Where’s the Beef?” and "You’re Fired," I ended up writing a weekly column keeping track of which teams were in the best position to land the Stanford QB in April’s Draft, and the Colts parted ways with Peyton Manning to make room for the two-time Heisman runner up.

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He went first overall to Indy. No one really blinked. And nobody — I mean, nobody — picked the Colts to do anything in 2012.

Luck came into this season with the most unusual of circumstances. Aside from being asked to replace arguably the greatest quarterback this sport has ever seen in the only NFL city the legend had ever called home, Luck also was faced with an abbreviated NFL offseason due to Stanford’s unusual mid-June graduation date. The Colts also had a first-year coach, an entirely new coaching staff around him, a new GM, and an offensive scheme Luck had never played in at Stanford, let alone mastered.

Now, nine weeks into the season, the Colts — a rudderless 2-14 team a season ago — are 5-3 and in good position to be one of the AFC’s two wild card teams in January. In each of those five wins, the Colts have won by less than seven points. They’re winning close games, they’re coming back late and they’re doing it with inspiration from coach Chuck Pagano, who is watching from afar.

They’re doing it behind the greatest rookie quarterback this league’s ever seen.

Peyton Manning is 5-3 with 2,404 yards through nine weeks with the Broncos. The rookie in Indianapolis? He’s 5-3 with 2,404 yards through nine weeks, too. That’s just nutty. Luck is tied for third in the league in passing yards per game with 300.5 yards-a-week. Who’s he tied with? Manning.

On Sunday, Luck threw for the most yards ever tossed by a rookie in a game and did it on a Dolphins defense that’d entered the game having not given up more than 21 points since Week 1. He's getting better and better each week. We toss around the term "unlimited potential" all the time, but the sky really is the limit with this kid. There was hype all last year. He's exceeded all expectations and then some.

I thought Luck would be great, but I didn’t expect this. Not in Year 1, at least. No one — with the possible exception of Jim Irsay — could have in their wildest dreams. Not only is he throwing the ball well, but he’s established himself as the locker room leader midway through his first year in the league. On a team with seasoned veterans like Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne, that’s saying something. We’ve seen some great years out of rookie QBs. Cam Newton shattered just about every rookie record, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez all took teams to the AFC Championship Game in their first seasons under center, and Dan Marino started for the AFC in the in the Pro Bowl after his ’83 campaign.

LET'S GET NUTS!

NFL fans are a special breed, and they bring their own brand of craziness on game day.

But Luck’s different. He’s not only winning games and winning them late, but he’s done so with absolutely zero drop-off from his Hall of Fame predecessor.

It’s funny. Cam Newton rewrote the record books last year and Robert Griffin III owned the national headlines and highlights throughout the 2012 season’s first half. But it’s Luck who’s going to go down as the greatest rookie QB, not only of the last 24 months, but of all-time. Too early to crown him with that title? How could I not? This season was supposed to be a complete wash in Indy. Instead, it’s been a complete turnaround. They may be better now than they were in 2010 with Manning under center.

Point to GM Ryan Grigson, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, or the veterans in that locker room who opted to stick around and experience the changing of the guard if you'd like. I’m looking no further than Luck.

And guess what? The Colts still have to play the Texans two times this season. Don’t be shocked if that AFC South — a division that appeared to be a one-horse team throughout much of the season’s first half — is decided in that Houston-Indianapolis Week 17 battle in Indianapolis. The Colts already have five wins and still play the Jaguars, Bills, Titans and the lowly Chiefs. A winning season is not only likely, but it’d be a shocker if it didn’t happen.

I laughed at the “Suck for Luck” concept last October. I shouldn’t have.

He’s been everything those Dolphins fans dreamed he would have been and more.

He's the best rookie gunslinger we've ever seen.

SCHRAGER’S TOP 5 ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS OF ALL-TIME

1. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis, 2012: The stats are impressive, but it’s what he’s overcome that’s been so amazing. The Colts weren’t supposed to be relevant this year. The fans were supposed to take a few years to get adjusted to a Post-Peyton era. Instead, it’s been “Peyton Who?”

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2. Cam Newton, Carolina, 2011: The Panthers went 6-10 and were never really in the thick of the playoff chase, but Newton really was “Superman” a season ago. He broke the single-season rookie passing record and had the most rushing yards and touchdowns for a first-year player. He did this all with a lockout shortened offseason.

3. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, 2004: Big Ben went 13-0 as a rookie and took his team to the AFC Championship Game, before coming up short at home to the Patriots. A year later, he won a Super Bowl. His passer rating of 98.1 is the best ever by a rookie.

4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta, 2008: Ryan was the second rookie QB to throw for 3,000 yards and did a similar thing in Atlanta with the post-Michael Vick era as Luck’s doing in Indy now. He took a really bad Falcons team from 2007 to the playoffs in 2008.

5. Dan Marino, Miami, 1983: Marino didn’t start until Week 6, but once he came in, he never gave the gig up. The Dolphins went 7-2 under Marino and he had a passer rating over 100 in five different games. Of all the rookie QBs in that gifted 1983 Draft class, Marino was the best in Year 1.

Week 9 record: 11-3

2012 overall record: 78-57

EYE CANDY

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WEEK 10 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK

Doug Martin became one of two players in NFL history to rush for 250+ yards and four touchdowns in a game last week versus the Raiders. Who’s the other player to accomplish the feat? (See below for answer)

Week 10 Fantasy Football Waiver Wire Pickup: Donald Jones, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills

THURSDAY NIGHT

Indianapolis at Jacksonville: If you’re ever having a bad day and need a pick-me-up, just click play on this video. The Colts are #ChuckStrong, they have the best rookie quarterback the league’s ever seen, and the defense has quietly become one of the more impressive units in the NFL. The Jaguars are in pretty good shape for the first overall pick in April’s Draft. Alas, “Suck for Jarvis Jones” or “Stink-o for Barkevious Mingo” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Suck for Luck”. This one’s a no-brainer. Take Indy.

The Pick: Colts 27, Jaguars 17

SUNDAY 1 P.M. ET GAMES

New York Giants at Cincinnati: Outside of his game-winning pass to Victor Cruz at the end of Week 7’s win over the Redskins, Eli Manning has not been sharp in New York’s past three games. He wasn’t himself in the first 59 minutes of the Redskins game, he was off in the win over Dallas, and he had his worst game in years Sunday versus the Steelers. Manning’s stat line in the 24-20 loss? 10-for-24, 125 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT. Cincy’s lost four straight games and got carved up by Eli’s older brother at home last week. I think Eli gets back on track in a tight one over a Bengals team that’s going in the wrong direction.

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The Pick: Giants 27, Bengals 24

Tennessee at Miami: The Dolphins lost a tough one in Indianapolis on Sunday, but should shake it off against Tennessee on Sunday. The Titans are 30th in the league against the rush, 27th in the league against the pass, and have given up more than 30 points in all but one of their six losses. Miami controls the line of scrimmage and controls the clock. Bud Adams put the whole Titans organization on watch after Sunday’s embarrassment versus the Bears. Another blowout loss and we may see many changes next week at this time.

The Pick: Dolphins 30, Titans 16

Detroit at Minnesota: Talk about two NFC North ships, going in separate directions, passing in the night. Detroit’s won three straight games and the offense appears to back to its 2011 form, while Minnesota’s now lost three of four games and has not looked good in the process. With the Bears and Packers dominating headlines and owning the screaming talking head shows, no one’s talking about the Lions. I know, Detroit still has to play Green Bay twice, Houston, Indy, and the Bears. But let’s take it one week at a time. Win this one, and they’re 5-4 and in the mix. I like ‘em on the road against the struggling Vikings in this one.

The Pick: Lions 34, Vikings 23

Buffalo at New England: Ah, the Bills. I thought this was going to be their year. A shiny new and expensive defensive line, two dynamic running backs, a franchise quarterback they’ve locked up for the foreseeable future … this was it! The season Buffalo broke the league’s longest playoff drought and went back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. I was wrong. New England’s going to have its way with Buffalo. The Bills are headed towards yet another Top 10 pick in April … $200 million defensive line and all.

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The Pick: Patriots 37, Bills 20

Atlanta at New Orleans: The Falcons haven’t forgotten last year’s Week 16 45-16 loss to the Saints in the Superdome. In that game, with the contest well out of hand, Sean Payton left Drew Brees in a three-score blowout and let him throw the ball, throw the ball some more, and throw the ball some more as he pursued the single season passing yardage record. He got the record, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski went bonkers, and the Falcons stayed quiet about the whole thing. These teams are in slightly different situations this time around. Don’t be shocked if Atlanta puts the ol’ 50-Burger on Brees and the Saints in their building on Sunday.

The Pick: Falcons 52, Saints 27

San Diego at Tampa Bay: Greg Schiano and Mark Dominik are in the running for NFL Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, respectively. Though my computer monitor is currently covered in drool over my admiration for Andrew Luck, you could make a good case for Doug Martin as 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, too. Tampa Bay rookie linebacker Lavonte David had 16 tackles a week ago. Is he the Defensive Rookie of the Year? He might just be. How about the Baby Bucs?! This team could have crumbled after that heartbreaking 35-28 loss at home to the Saints a few weeks back. Instead, they’ve won two straight road games. I’m buying the Bucs. I was selling the Chargers a long, long time ago.

The Pick: Buccaneers 34, Chargers 30

Denver at Carolina: It’s the John Fox Bowl! Or something like that. Denver’s not losing another game this regular season. I wrote about it last week in this column and I’m sticking by it. Carolina got a much needed road win versus the Redskins, but Jack Del Rio’s D is not Jim Haslett’s joke of a unit in Washington. If you didn’t know, Peyton Manning owns a bunch of Papa John’s franchises. He’ll own the Panthers on Sunday, too.

The Pick: Broncos 30, Panthers 23

Oakland at Baltimore: Oakland’s been outscored 88-24 in the third quarter this year and is 30th in the league in rushing yards. Darren McFadden’s doing his annual “miss a few games/frustrate fantasy owners” injury sabbatical and Marcel Reese now appears to be the focal point of the offense. I like Reece as a fullback, but he’s not exactly Marshall Faulk. The Ravens haven’t looked all that impressive in any of their eight games this year and are still 6-2. They’ll be 7-2 after this one. It won’t be easy — it never is — but they’ll figure it out.

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The Pick: Ravens 24, Raiders 20

SUNDAY 4 P.M. ET GAMES

New York Jets at Seattle: There’s a feisty little storyline to follow in this one. In January of 2009, Mark Sanchez announced he was leaving USC early and entering the upcoming NFL Draft. Pete Carroll, his head coach at the time and the guy who recruited him to play at USC, responded by saying the following: "We don't see this decision the same. Mark's going against the grain on this decision and he knows that. He knows coming out early is a tremendous challenge for a quarterback and the statistics don't back up that it will be easy the way he's going about it." Three years later, they’re head to head for the first time in the NFL. Seattle — your thoughts on the Green Bay “win” aside — hasn’t lost a home game this season. They’re not losing this one, either.

The Pick: Seahawks 28, Jets 21

St. Louis at San Francisco: If Alex Smith has a career performance and you don’t see it due to a hurricane, did it really happen? I’m told Smith looked like Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Steve Bono all in one last week versus the Cardinals, but I don’t know. I’m still skeptical. Did that really happen or is the entire world just yanking my chain? The 49ers defense is too good to have Sam Bradford notch a win in San Francisco. I’m nauseous from jumping on and off the Alex Smith bandwagon the past few years. I’ll just count on the D to get the job done.

The Pick: 49ers 27, Rams 16

Dallas at Philadelphia: There’s a joke somewhere about Jason Garrett, Tony Romo, and Jerry Jones being locked out of a locker room in the desert and the only way inside is running a successful two minute drill in the fourth quarter. It ends with them just pounding on the locker room door and the clock running out. Dallas is 3-5 on the year and the losses just seem to be getting worse and worse. They could still make a run in November and December, but I just don’t see it. I’m taking Philly.

The Pick: Eagles 27, Cowboys 20

SUNDAY NIGHT

Houston at Chicago: Perhaps my favorite part of both of these teams’ successful first halves of the season is the two guys running the dominant defenses. Rod Marinelli and Wade Phillips — two guys who were fired from high profile head coaching gigs a few years back — are now being looked at as mad geniuses in Chicago and Houston, respectively. This one’s loaded with stars and big personalities on the field. The two guys I’ll be watching? The behind-the-scenes guys running the defenses. I can’t pick against the Bears at home in that November weather. Not with Marinelli’s D playing the way it has.

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The Pick: Bears 27, Texans 21

MONDAY NIGHT

Kansas City at Pittsburgh: Just what America’s been clamoring for: back-to-back weeks with the Chiefs playing on national TV in primetime. Kansas City’s not just bad, they're epically bad. They haven’t led for a single second of a game this season, their quarterback situation is not even worth analyzing, and their schedule only gets tougher. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an Andrew Luck, RG3, or even a Tannehill or Russell Wilson-like QB prospect in next year’s draft. Sorry, Chiefs fans. For a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1993 and still packs Arrowhead every weekend, you deserve better.

The Pick: Steelers 38, Chiefs 10

OH, AND BY THE WAY …

1. Mike Shanahan’s one of my favorite head coaches to cover in the league. But if he’s looking to inspire his team and the local fan base, I’m not sure saying the following after Sunday’s loss to Carolina was the best way to go about things: “Now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously, we’re not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we’ve got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.” Shanny!

2. Out of all the bad Hurricane Sandy has brought to the East Coast, there’s been some very inspiring moments of good in the aftermath. I loved Steve Politi’s article on the Point Pleasant Beach High School football team in Sunday’s Newark Star Ledger, and this post on Staten Island from the guys at Buzzfeed. There’s still work to be done, but it’s incredible to see these communities and so many other rally around each other.

3. Someone — anyone with a stop watch and a grasp of NFL rules — should really write a “Fourth Quarter Game Management for Dummies” book. It’d sell incredibly well in NFL cities. Jason Garrett’s been atrocious with clock management this year, but Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress have been even worse. Down 22-15 with 3:52 left in Sunday’s game and facing a fourth-and-2 on their own 28, Shurmur opted to go for it instead of punting the ball away to Baltimore. The play call? A deep pass over the middle to Greg Little. Incomplete. Baltimore promptly kicked a field goal, icing the game and a 10-point win. The Browns defense had kept Cleveland in the game all afternoon. The running game had kept the score close. The decision to go for it, deep in their own territory, with 4:42 left to go — and not run the ball with Trent Richardson? I’m still scratching my head.

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4. On Monday, reporters asked Jets safety LaRon Landry about the 2012 season: "S--t, man. If we don't get into the playoffs it's a boring ass season. You know? F--k that." The NFL really is the best.

5. Louis C.K. is incredible. If you’re a fan of the FX show “Louie” and you enjoy your presidential history, you’ll love this clip from last week’s “Saturday Night Live.”

WEEK 10 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER: On Dec. 3, 2000, Denver Broncos running back Mike Anderson ran for 251 yards and 4 touchdowns versus the New Orleans Saints. Anderson, like Martin, accomplished the feat in his rookie year.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Browns, Broncos, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Saints, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Donald Jones, Cam Newton, Greg Little, Doug Martin, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck

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