INDIANAPOLIS -- There's a time to speak of young players in measured tones, sidestepping hyperbole to keep those guys grounded.
Luck is 24 years old.
To anyone who was in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, or watched this epic on NBC, or just heard about what happened, Pagano's words didn't even seem the slightest bit over the top.
The Colts' logic-busting 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday's AFC Wild Card games was about more than erasing a 28-point third-quarter deficit -- the second biggest comeback in NFL postseason history -- or advancing to play in Foxborough or Denver next weekend. It was about a quarterback who came into the league carrying as heavy a burden as any in NFL history -- replacing a legend as a rookie -- decisively stepping out of the shadow to write his own story.
"He's always been a different animal in the fourth quarter, his whole life," said Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, who was a rookie in his position, like Luck was, in 2012. "And just even hearing the story from his uncle (and agent) Will (Wilson). He relishes those moments. It's like (Michael) Jordan when he'd take that last shot -- he wants the ball. This guy, we're so blessed, he wants the ball in those situations. Other guys don't want the ball; they want to hand it off. They don't really want it -- they're gonna be half-stepping it.
"This kid is gonna rear back and throw a bomb when he has all the pressure on him. And that's a thing of beauty. You're born with that."
The first two rounds of the NFL's postseason schedule for the 2013 season were released Sunday night. **More ...**
But what was so remarkable about the comeback, and what left everyone so sold on Luck wasn't the beauty of a single strike. No, it was the flaws in his performance, which spoke loudest about where this quarterback is, and where he's going.
Not the first time
Tight end Coby Fleener has played with Luck for six seasons, and so this wasn't the first time he's witnessed Luck's magic. Nor was it the best time.
The USC-Stanford game from 2011 was raised to Fleener. All he could do was grin.
"It's No. 1 in the NFL," Fleener said of Saturday's comeback. "But, I mean, that USC game was pretty amazing, the three overtimes, to get a victory there, that was pretty awesome."
In that epic clash three Octobers ago, with the Trojans and Cardinal tied at 27 and 3:08 left, Luck threw a backbreaking pick six to former USC cornerback Nickell Robey. Back-breaking, that is, for just about any other quarterback. Instead of folding there, Luck got his team back in the end zone on its next possession to force overtime, then found a way to outlast Matt Barkley and the Trojans, winning 56-48.
This one was a lot like that one.
With the Colts down 31-10 and badly needing a score to end the first half, Luck was picked off by Chiefs corner Brandon Flowers. His very next throw, at the start of the second half, was intercepted, too, which enabled Kansas City to stretch its lead to 38-10. All of that would be enough, given the stakes, to get just about any young quarterback to start second guessing.
But not this one, not with a rare ability to compartmentalize mistakes while sitting in the eye of a hurricane.
"I don't know. I don't know if I do a great job of it, or a decent job of it," Luck told me. "I think, for one, it's easy when your teammates trust you, and your coaches trust you. When you've got the support of your coaches and teammates, it's easier. And then there's a bit of wanting back out there -- hey, let's go right the wrongs."
From there, Luck led three touchdown drives on Indy's remaining possessions, going 10-for-13 passing for 201 yards, two scores and a quarterback rating that was a half-point off from being perfect.
"A lot of guys, you throw those three picks, and you get defensive and you get conservative and you get scared, and you just can't pull the trigger, because you don't want to throw a fourth," Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. "He's the opposite. He gets mad at himself, and you look in his eye, and he's going, 'No, we are gonna drive this thing down there, I'm not gonna do that anymore.' ... You see the resolve in his eye. That's a rare quality, a great quality to have, and he has it."
No one would doubt that anymore.
One of the guys
At the end of my conversation with Luck, as he tried to deflect on this dynamic he so obviously brings, he tossed this out there: "When you've got Robert Mathis on your team, you've always got a chance."
That was relayed to Mathis, who responded, "You can tell him I feel the same way about him."
And there's the last piece of this, where the leader of the team, at 24, is part of a group that reflects this great quality of his.
"He's like a lineman," Grigson said. "He identifies with every person on this roster. He doesn't have a holier-than-thou attitude. He never has. He's one of the guys. But he's also our leader. He's been incredible. You see it. The talent's there. But the heart is something. They don't measure it at the (NFL Scouting Combine), and he's got the biggest one in this league."
With that in mind, it'll come as no surprise that for Luck, his 443-yard, four-touchdown performance was't about him.
It was about a coach whose resilience, going through things much tougher than anything encountered on the football field, has become part of the team's identity. It was about Mathis, coming up big once again. It was about teammates picking each other up, as Luck did when he gathered Donald Brown's fourth-quarter fumble inside the Chiefs' 5-yard line and took it into the end zone.
It was about the group, which is a reason why everyone follows him.
"There's no panic. There's no freak-out sessions," Luck said. "And it's not like we haven't come back from this stuff. It's not ideal, but these guys will fight, and that's something that coach Pagano has preached forever."
The sum of all of that, with No. 12 squarely in the middle of it, was a team that had very little doubt about what was about to happen when the quarterback walked into the huddle down 6, with 5:36 remaining and the season on the line.
High above it all, Grigson leaned over to vice president of player personnel Jimmy Raye, and simply said, "Put the ball in 12's hands, let's go get seven and let's get out of here with a win."
"That's him, that's how he's wired, that's in his DNA," Pagano said. "We talk about 'it' -- he's got 'it.' You see a lot of guys that would go in the tank and couldn't put (the interceptions) past them. It's like a great cover corner. They have amnesia. He's able to put that behind him, put this team on his shoulders and carry us to another victory."
In that way, more than any sort of arrival, this was affirmation.
And, to be sure, there will be plenty more of that to come.