Prior to last year's NFL Draft, everyone (myself included) said Andrew Luck was the most pro-ready quarterback prospect to enter the NFL since Peyton Manning. However, prior to the 2012 season, nobody (myself included) said he was good enough to carry this Indianapolis Colts team to the playoffs. It's beginning to look like all of us underestimated both Luck and the Colts.
The Colts are now 5-3 following Sunday's 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins, which came courtesy of another incredible performance by Luck. He completed 30 of 48 passes for a rookie-record 433 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers are extraordinary, but I was even more impressed by his play on third downs; Luck helped the Colts convert 13 of 19 third-down opportunities. Six of those conversions occurred with the Colts needing 10 yards or more.
Other Colts players have contributed to this turnaround. Reggie Wayne has played about as well as any wide receiver in the NFL, and linebacker Robert Mathis has keyed an improved defense. However, this team is in playoff contention largely because of its rookie signal-caller.
Luck's combination of physical tools, football instincts and ability to handle pressure make him a very rare player. Good quarterbacks possess two of those traits, but the great ones have all three. Luck has consistently displayed the arm strength and accuracy to make every throw on the field. He's continually exhibited the football instincts to create plays when things break down around him. And he's proven he can handle pressure situations by guiding the Colts on four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Luck is the definition of a difference-maker. To fully understand the impact he's had on the Colts, check out the statistics from the first nine weeks of the 2011 and 2012 seasons in the box to the right.
The Colts still have eight games to play this season, but they're in a great position to earn a playoff berth. The competition in the AFC is down this year; nine wins will probably be enough to clinch a wild-card spot. Five of the Colts' remaining games are against beatable opponents: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts also have a Week 17 contest against a Houston Texans team that could be resting some key players, assuming the Texans already have locked up a first-round bye.
The Colts were very fortunate to have Peyton Manning as their starting quarterback for 13 seasons; he made them a consistent playoff team throughout his tenure. Now it looks as though the Colts could be ready to start another playoff run with his replacement.
The Packers' version of Percy Harvin
One of the standout players of the first half of the 2012 campaign has been Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb. Against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Cobb provided a great sampling of his playmaking abilities. He caught two touchdown passes, rushed for 29 yards on three carries and had a 44-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He's currently leading the Packers with 45 catches and has already caught six touchdown passes.
Comparing players is always a helpful way for scouts to put abilities in the proper context. Cobb is incredibly similar to a player inside his own division: Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin. Cobb and Harvin are alike in size, quickness and versatility. They both can impact the return game, create after the catch and carry the football from the backfield.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has continued to gain confidence in Cobb, who, in just his second year, has already established himself as one of the top playmakers in the NFL. The Packers' receiving corps has been banged up this season, but Cobb has more than picked up the slack. If he can continue to play at this level, the Packers' passing game is going to be nearly impossible to slow down.
Three startling statistics
1) The Detroit Lions have yet to record a run of 20 yards or more this season. It's no secret that the Lions rely on their passing attack, but this is still a surprising statistic. To put this in perspective, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin had three touchdown runs of 45 yards or more in Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders alone. The Lions haven't had a single run of half that distance.
2) The Chicago Bears' pass defense has scored as many touchdowns as it's allowed. This statistic really stunned me. The Bears' pass defense has basically played to a draw so far this season, allowing seven touchdown passes while scoring seven times off of interceptions. That's crazy!
3) Receiver A.J. Green has caught at least one touchdown pass in seven of the Cincinnati Bengals' eight games. As good as he was as a rookie last season, Green accomplished that feat in just seven games all year. Green's debut campaign was phenomenal. He was voted to the Pro Bowl and I personally tabbed him as the third-best receiver in the NFL. He's been even better in 2012: He's tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions with eight and is on pace to finish the year with more than 1,400 receiving yards.
Peyton isn't a one-man band
Along with the rest of the media, I've been effusive in my praise of Peyton Manning's play this season. He is a legitimate MVP candidate and has exceeded the most optimistic expectations with his performance following multiple neck procedures. That being said, he isn't the only reason the Denver Broncos are sitting atop the AFC West. The following Broncos players deserve some attention as well:
» Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker: Thomas is currently fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (756) and has caught more passes of 20 yards or more (17) than anyone in the league. Decker, meanwhile, is currently tied for third in the league with seven touchdown receptions. Both receivers quickly have adapted to their new quarterback and make big plays on a weekly basis.
» Running back Willis McGahee: McGahee is on pace to rush for more than 1,200 yards. Manning needs a strong running game to set up the play-action pass and create windows down the field; McGahee gives him that.
» Offensive line: The Broncos' offensive line has allowed the second-fewest sacks (10) in the NFL. Manning is known for his quick release, but his line has been a great help, keeping him from taking many hits, let alone sacks.
» Pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil: Miller is currently tied for second in the NFL with nine sacks, and Dumervil isn't far behind with six. They form one of the NFL's most disruptive pass-rushing duos and have helped close out several Denver victories.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.