DETROIT – Andrew Luck cannot be shaken and, because of that, neither can the Indianapolis Colts.
For a good chunk of the Colts' rise-from-the-dead 35-33 last-second win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, Luck stunk. No, he wasn't odoriferous in the manner of lousy, journeymen quarterbacks. But for precocious superstars in the making, he stunk.
“I played a lot of bad ball,” Luck said, as his 27 incompletions and three interceptions would indicate. “I'm thankful for the great defense keeping us in there. I'm thankful to be on a team that just keeps playing.”
This is Luck's team, now 8-4 and within clear sight of a playoff berth. While it's true everyone keeps playing, NFL teams ride so often on the example of their quarterback.
The win Sunday was the worst and best of Luck.
“Show me a guy who has the most resilience in the NFL, and I'll introduce you to my quarterback Andrew Luck,” Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said. “He's a guy, he throws three picks. Most guys would be down. He owns up on the sideline. He's like, 'My fault. I'll take care of it.'
“To lead us down on that final drive, that final play. Unbelievable.”
Actually, it feels familiar. For those of us who watched and marveled at former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and his late-game heroics over the years, we know the impossible can become probable. But for a rookie to do it, on a day where he seemed to have no groove in Motown, it makes even the cynical believe something inexplicable and wonderful is happening for these Colts.
Some of the resilience can be credited to the inspiration of coach Chuck Pagano, whose battle with leukemia prompted the “ChuckStrong” theme and an attitude to rise above circumstances.
Some of it can be credited to interim coach Bruce Arians, who never seems to think the game's out of hand, even when Luck's last interception was punctuated by Lions cornerback Don Carey flattening Arians on the sideline.
Some of it is Luck, and his mindset as much as his skills.
“I think we have a bunch of guys in the locker room maybe who don't know any better,” Luck said. “We just keep playing.”
Luck's final drive, the one that pushed the Colts to 7-1 in games decided by one score, should end up as a block in his foundation as a future elite quarterback. (Actually, should I take “future” out? No, let's not get too far ahead.)
With the Colts on their own 25-yard line with 1:07 left and no timeouts, Luck took off and ran for nine yards. Arians didn't like this decision. It wasn't particularly clock savvy. Luck then had to spike the ball and lose a down to stop the clock.
But then Luck hit Reggie Wayne for 26 yards and the drive was on. Another spike to stop the clock. A scramble for a first down. Two plays later, a strong sideline pass to Allen. The Colts had a first down at the Lions' 14-yard line and 18 seconds left.
Luck went over the middle to the back of the end zone, right into Wayne's hands. Somehow, Carey got his hands into Wayne and the ball slipped away. Two more incompletions brought the Colts to their final play.
The Lions went into heavy deep coverage, determined not to let the Colts catch a ball in the end zone. Luck felt pressure, scrambled, looked like he'd run the ball then dumped it to Donnie Avery. Avery found the hole for the most improbable win yet.
“Until that clock says 0:00, you never know what will happen,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said.
Arians had told Luck to shake off his three interceptions and some bad decisions. He reminded Luck that his mistakes hadn't lost the game, they'd merely helped put the Colts in a tough situation.
In a stretch of punt after punt, off-target pass after off-target pass, Luck seemed so out of rhythm it was easy to wonder if he'd lost his confidence.
I won't wonder that again. His final two drives included a running first down and a perfect touchdown strike to LaVon Brazill as the Lions were grabbing at Luck's feet from behind.
“Kid made some plays,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Good player.”
Give some credit to the Colts defense, as it clamped down late and got a stop on the Lions' final possession. The Colts couldn't slow Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (13 catches, 171 yards), but they held the Lions to field goals at times when a touchdown might have been a knockout blow.
The Colts wouldn't have won, however, if Luck had dwelled on his bad plays instead of flushing them and forging ahead.
That's the core of the lesson Pagano's plight has taught. You take the hit and keep fighting.
“It's real tough being a rookie and he has a lot on his shoulders and his back,” Bethea said. “He's handled this pressure really well and continues to make plays out there.”
Luck finished 24 of 54 for 391 yards and four touchdowns. Arians emphasized the only statistic the Colts cared about was “No.8” – their eighth win.
That might explain Luck's resilience as much as anything. He's about winning. Until the clock expires, anything can happen. As we're learning this season, anything often does with Luck.