Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck, seen here diving for a touchdown during last week's improbable come-from-behind win over Kansas City, is the talk of the town as Indianapolis prepares for Saturday's playoff showdown against the New England Patriots.
Michael Parente - MP@990WBOB.com
Somewhere underneath the dense fog blanketing New England this week, there’s cautious optimism floating 40 miles south of Boston as the Patriots prepare for Saturday’s playoff opener against Indianapolis, their 10th trip to the postseason in the past 11 years.
The unstoppable playoff express of a decade ago now resembles that trusty Oldsmobile slowly pushing the odometer past two hundred thousand. The struts are shot, paint is beginning to peel off the passenger side and there’s a small crack in the windshield. One more pothole, and it’s scrap metal.
Saturday will be New England’s 25th playoff game of the Bill Belichick era, a remarkable run that began 13 years ago when owner Bob Kraft fired Pete Carroll following a late-season collapse in 1999. The Patriots won three titles in Belichick’s first five seasons and haven’t won since, an eight-year drought tainted by two Super Bowl losses, two playoff one-and-dones and a pair of losses in the conference championship.
The most indispensable player of this era, quarterback Tom Brady, turned 36 in August, and while this might’ve been one of this most impressive seasons based on what he did and how far he led this team with a limited supporting cast, the signs of decline – overthrown passes, slow starts, a staggering lack of mobility – are plain as day.
Wear and tear is inevitable on any engine, especially one with 6,586 pass attempts and more than 49,000 yards on its right arm, and the window of opportunity for both Brady and Belichick to win at least one more title in New England closes with each playoff failure.
The excitement of beating San Francisco, Seattle and Denver is somewhat tempered by the lack of competition in the AFC South, which guarantees the Colts six games against bottom-feeders Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee, but Luck brought much-needed stability to an otherwise up-and-down season by continuing to prove he’s at best when the heat is on; narrow victories over the Raiders, Titans, Broncos and Seahawks raised Luck’s career record to 10-1 in games decided by four points or less and 18-2 in games decided by seven points or less.
No quarterback in NFL history has won more playoff games than Brady, which, in any match-up, makes him the safer bet, but it’s hard to ignore trends; in just his second career playoff game, Luck threw 443 passing yards Saturday, which is more than Brady has throw in any postseason game in 24 tries. Luck’s riding the hot hand, impervious to the pressure, whereas Brady has lost five of his last eight playoff games dating back to the second of his two Super Bowl losses to the Giants and has thrown at least one interception in six of the last seven, including two in last year’s AFC championship game loss to the Ravens.
These Colts don’t hit quite as hard or defend like Baltimore in its prime, but there is a common denominator in Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, who was the defensive coordinator for the same Baltimore team that held Brady without a touchdown pass and came within a botched field goal of beating the Patriots two years ago in the conference title game. Pagano brought the same blueprint to Indianapolis, but it’s still a work in progress; the Colts allowed 30 or more points five times this season, including last week’s poor defense effort against the Chiefs, overshadowed only by Luck’s second-half heroics.
As sexy a pick as they might be come Saturday, the Colts still have problems they need to sort out before the weekend. Were it not for Luck’s fumble recovery and acrobatic touchdown, Brown’s gaffe might’ve burst the Colts’ bubble during that furious rally. There’s also the question of what they’ll do with fellow running back Trent Richardson, who fumbled on his only carry of the game and never saw the field again.
There’s a chance – albeit a slim one – we witness a passing of the torch Saturday, perhaps the end of an era in New England that has extended far beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Luck is the NFL’s best young quarterback, the heir to the throne once the Brady-Peyton Manning-Drew Brees triumvirate runs its course, but New England’s timeless duo of Brady and Belichick might have just enough gas left in the tank for one last trip to the top of the mountain. It’ll be a slow, cautious road, but one worth traveling.
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