Andrew Luck's magic fueling Indianapolis Colts' playoff success

INDIANAPOLIS -- Because he wears a horseshoe on his helmet, spins a football with exquisite touch and has taken full command of his surroundings since the time he became a Colt, Andrew Luck is inevitably compared to his legendary predecessor -- which is kind of like beginning your career as a Silicon Valley executive and being called the next Steve Jobs.

Yet after Luck led the Colts to a 26-10 playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium -- setting up a divisional-round clash seven days later against the Denver Broncos and You Know Who -- it wasn't Peyton Manning to whom Indy's quarterback was likened by the man who signs his paycheck.

"When things broke down out there, Andrew took over -- and we needed it," Colts owner Jim Irsay said after emerging from the home locker room a few minutes after the game. "He needs to put this team on his back and take this thing over and get that Aaron Rodgers spirit. He and I talked about it before the game, and then he went out and did it. And if he keeps it going, we could go a long way."

So there it is: All Luck has to do is emulate Rodgers, who led the wild-card Green Bay Packers to a trio of road victories and a Super Bowl championship four years ago, and who will likely win a second regular-season MVP award the night before this year's title game, one that may or may not include the second-seeded Pack.

Oh, and the third-year pro may have to go through Manning and Tom Brady to have a shot.

No pressure, kid. Then again, Luck wouldn't have it any other way. For all his notoriously polite comments about his opponents and his nerd-next-door demeanor, the young man with the Civil War-general neck beard is a tightly wound warrior at heart.

"Um, he's kind of competitive," said Matt Hasselbeck, Luck's veteran backup. "I mean, he's really competitive. Like, when we're up big on a team and there are four minutes to go, I should be playing -- but he really wants to play. He's got the chinstrap buckled, the mouthpiece in and his body language just kind of screams, 'I want to hand these balls off. I want to take that knee.' He's almost making it uncomfortable for the coach to take him out. And he's the same way in practice when I get my three reps."

Last year, Luck did something almost unfathomable in Indy's first-round playoff game, spurring an epic comeback -- the second largest in playoff history -- against the Kansas City Chiefs, who jumped out to a 38-10 third-quarter lead at Lucas Oil Stadium before losing 45-44.

On Sunday, though his passing numbers (31 of 44, 376 yards) were prodigious, Luck mostly inflicted paper cuts on a Bengals defense that protected against the big play -- with one captivating exception.

Cincinnati's offense, for the fourth consecutive year, was punchless in the postseason -- the constant being fourth-year pro Andy Dalton at quarterback, who is as reliably lousy in January as Siberia's weather -- but the Bengals were still hanging around midway through the third quarter, trailing by a 13-10 score.

On second-and-10 from the Cincy 36, the Colts called a play-action pass, and the Bengals sent a pair of blitzers, leaving them exposed to a deep ball. Luck hoped to find tight end Coby Fleener, one of three receivers lined up to his left, but slipped right to evade safety Reggie Nelson, who was slowed down by halfback Daniel (Boom) Herron.

Then defensive end Carlos Dunlap made a run at Luck, chasing him from behind. It looked as though Luck, who is more athletically gifted than is commonly portrayed, might try to run for it, but with Dunlap diving at the back of his legs just before the line of scrimmage, the quarterback instead released an exquisite touch pass to the right corner of the end zone, and rookie receiver Donte Moncrief pulled it down as two Bengals defensive backs gave futile pursuit.

How did Luck know the precise moment to release the ball, just before he crossed the line -- and how did he deliver it so accurately under duress?

"It's kind of just a feel," he said shortly before entering the shower. "And the throw is just practice. You practice throwing on the run, and I tried to put it up where Donte could get it. He's such a big, physical guy, and you just want to give him a chance to make a play."

Modest much? Luck gave Moncrief a chance to make a play by dropping the football directly into his waiting hands, where only he could catch it. Yeah, it was that good.

"It's just amazing," Moncrief said. "He makes passes like that look easy."

Marveled Colts middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who came to Indy as a free agent after eight frustrating seasons with the Cleveland Browns and thoroughly enjoyed his first career playoff game: "That play was unbelievable. To have a guy on his legs and have the wherewithal to throw it without crossing the line of scrimmage and put it where he did ... just unbelievable."

Whereas Dalton (18 for 35, 155 yards, one lost fumble), stung by the absence of star receiver A.J. Green and other injured skill players, didn't come close to playing like a quarterback worth an annual average salary of $16 million (plus incentives), Luck (whose rookie-wage-scale-decreed deal paid him a mere $2.3 million for 2014) was money. His most important numbers for the day: zero interceptions and zero fumbles.

Turnovers have been a problem for Luck in his third season. Though he was third among NFL quarterbacks with 4,761 passing yards and led the NFL with 40 touchdown throws, he also served up 16 interceptions and fumbled a league-high 13 times -- and his six lost fumbles were tied for the NFL lead. This is partly because, in the words of one Colts source, "he's a brain surgeon but has a renegade heart and a linebacker's mentality. It's his DNA. He refuses to let plays die. It's a double-edged sword."

This point was reiterated by Hasselbeck, who put it this way: "He's one of those players. He's got a (Brett) Favre-like quality to him. Look at the interception reel and the fumble reel, and it's probably gonna look like the touchdown reel. You accept it, because in the end it's worth it. He's just one of those players."

He's a player who, at 25, earned comparisons to both phenomenal Packers passers of this era -- and who, for the next week, is going to be talked about in relation to his predecessor, who on Sunday will try to keep Luck from reaching his first AFC Championship Game while giving the Broncos a shot at a second consecutive Super Bowl.

Suffice it to say, Luck won't shy away from the challenge.

"He doesn't waver," Jackson said. "What you see on the field is who he is. He gets in these tough situations, and you just watch him to see if he's gonna crack. And he doesn't. His demeanor is, 'I expected to do it.' And we all feed off that."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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