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Andrew Luck facing biggest challenge yet: overcoming adversity

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When this season ends, we will know much more about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck than ever before.

That's the narrative that is growing around the franchise and its star quarterback these days. He's enjoyed a phenomenal start to his career while proving all the early hype surrounding him was legitimate. He's also never been put through what he's facing in Indianapolis this year -- the kind of struggles that go a long way toward defining how great he will be moving forward.

There had to be a collective exhale around that franchise on Sunday afternoon, shortly after Indianapolis held off the Tennessee Titans for a 35-33 win. Along with preventing an 0-3 start, that victory also reminded us of what Luck -- whose current 65.1 passer rating is the worst in the NFL among starters -- has often been able to do for a Colts squad that was a trendy Super Bowl pick in the preseason. He didn't let the team wilt when the Titans were in position to run away with the game in the fourth quarter. He rallied Indy in the end, mounting the 13th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his young career.

That was not a victory, however, that should make cynics believe all is now right with the Colts. There are still many things to question about how the team has handled Luck and what it ultimately has to do to make his life easier, including resolving what has been reported as a growing rift between general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano. As one AFC personnel director said, "They have a quarterback most coaches wait a career to have -- and while he does have to protect the ball better, they expect him to do too much. The problem with that team isn't the coaching. It's the subpar personnel."

It's actually stunning that it's taken this long to start hearing these complaints during Luck's tenure in Indianapolis. We've watched Robert Griffin III implode in Washington. We're witnessing a similar regression for Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. Last season, there were all sorts of criticisms thrust at Carolina's Cam Newton, another young signal caller who was supposedly destined to redefine the position. Until this season, Luck -- who has three Pro Bowl nods, three playoff appearances and more passing yards than any quarterback in NFL history in his first three seasons since being the first pick in the 2012 draft -- had never faced many questions about his own situation.

Success came so quickly for Luck that it was easy to ignore one of the truisms of sports: Greatness is most often forged through adversity. After all, Tom Brady would not be the player he is today without having dropped to the sixth round of the draft. Aaron Rodgers wouldn't be a superstar if he hadn't started his college career at Butte Community College. Drew Brees had that nasty shoulder injury in San Diego, and let's not forget that Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions in his rookie season with the Colts.

What we can see today is that it's finally Luck's time to struggle. His offensive line is disastrous. His running game isn't reliable. The Colts' defense also doesn't have enough playmakers to stop anybody with a halfway-decent offense. It's a formula that looks eerily reminiscent of what John Elway endured throughout the early stages of his own Hall of Fame career, when he was good enough to lead the Denver Broncos to Super Bowls but hamstrung enough to get beaten down on the game's biggest stage.

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The Colts looked so feeble in losses to the Bills and Jets that the win over Tennessee culminated with Luck acknowledging the growing desperation around his team. When asked if Indianapolis had just pulled off a must-win in Week 3, Luck replied, "It sure felt like it at the end of the game. We did not want to lose. I don't even want to think about a loss, so I'm not going to. This one was big, very big. That's a very good Tennessee team. It's in a good division that's on the road. If this can jumpstart a little hot streak, then that's what we need."

One factor that has helped us ignore many of the shortcomings around Luck so far is the Colts' dominance of the AFC South. His record when starting against divisional foes stands at an eye-popping 17-2 in regular-season games. (And it should be noted that all three of those other teams -- Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee -- have each held a top-three pick in the NFL draft during Luck's career.) That also means the Colts have gone just 17-15 with Luck lined up against everybody else in the league. In other words, these problems started long before this season ever began.

The good news for Luck is that he's about to see more divisional foes in the near future, with games against Jacksonville and Houston over the next two weeks. The bad news is that the Colts still are going to face at least four teams that are legitimate playoff contenders after that. Two of those clubs -- Carolina and Denver -- have defenses that can make life just as difficult for Luck as the Bills and Jets did. Another is New England, which has pounded the ball so consistently against the Colts' soft defense in recent years that Bill Belichick might as well be running the wishbone.

As we look farther down the road, it's this stretch that will reveal plenty about where Luck is at in his career. The growing belief among observers is that he has become so used to doing too much that he's trying to force things even more. Sure, his discomfort in the pocket has plenty do with the seven interceptions he's already thrown this season (as well as the 50 he's tossed in his career). The fact that he can't count on his running game or his defense -- things he never complains about -- has to play a role, as well.

Pagano spoke about that issue last week, when much of the news focused on his reportedly frosty relationship with Grigson. "It's not all on our quarterback," Pagano said last Tuesday. "When you look at this thing, thank God we have the guy that we have. ... We've seen it time and time again, where he's been able to -- when things break down -- make huge plays for us. We've won, obviously we win as a team and no one man is responsible for it. We do it collectively obviously. We need everybody, but obviously he plays a major, major role in that."

Luck actually isn't experiencing anything uncommon. Hall of Famer Warren Moon once said that every young quarterback has to understand one thing about life in the NFL: Sooner or later, defenses catch up. They figure out what signal callers do well and they try to force them to do other things. The key, as Moon noted, is to improve both your weaknesses and your strengths as your career progresses. The last thing you ever want as a quarterback is to forget what you do best.

Luck finds himself at a point in his career where he needs to understand that. He has tried to make plays that seem nearly impossible because he's been succeeding at that for most of his career. But now Luck is at a juncture where he's experiencing real adversity and the kind of dysfunctional politics that rip apart franchises.

Luck has shown us what he can do when life is good in the NFL. He'll show us even more in how he handles the bad.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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