DENVER — For three quarters, Andrew Luck was the quarterback the Indianapolis Colts needed him to be — not flashy, sometimes downright boring, but most importantly, a quarterback who valued patience and didn’t make mistakes.
The Broncos forced that other Andrew Luck to show up in the fourth quarter, and it cost the Colts the game.
First, Luck tried to squeeze a third-and-15 pass over an oncoming rusher to a completely covered receiver. Denver’s Aqib Talib picked it off and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
From there, the Colts entered comeback mode, and that ended badly, too: Luck never felt Von Miller coming from his right for the sack and strip that led to Shane Ray’s 15-yard fumble recovery and the clinching score in Sunday’s 34-20 loss.
“I know Andrew would love to have it back,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said of the pick-6 that gave Denver a 23-13 lead.
“We’d all love to have it back. You’ve got to take care of the football in that situation. If we don’t get a first down, we don’t get the first down, you punt the football and it’s a three-point game.”
One main story line on Luck coming into this game was how last week, even though it ended in a 39-35 loss to Detroit, was more like what the Colts needed from the man they made the league’s highest-paid player in the offseason — the quarterback who, over his first three seasons, won 33 games, made the playoffs three times and showed all signs of being the NFL’s Next Great QB.
Critics noted, however, that some of his stats have often been stockpiled in comebacks made necessary by his own mistakes.
He threw four touchdowns in this season’s opener. No interceptions. Didn’t put the football or his own body at risk. More of that would equal good things.
And the fact that he, along with Tom Brady, was the only active quarterback with three wins over the Broncos since the start of the now-passed Peyton Manning era in Denver lent hope to the idea that Luck could keep the Colts from starting 0-2 for the third straight season.
Indianapolis put this game in the hands of its defense and running game for the first three quarters. Luck had 81 yards passing after three (197 for the game), and his best play was a 21-yard scramble on third-and-20 to keep Indy’s first touchdown drive going in the third quarter.
That tied the game at 13. Denver answered with a field goal.
The fourth quarter was barely underway when Luck threw his first interception of the season. It was a pass that shouldn’t have been thrown.
“They made a good play,” Luck said. “Obviously, (Talib) got to the ball before our guy did. You saw what happened after that.”
As Cam Newton can attest, Luck isn’t the first quarterback to get rattled and dismantled by a Denver defense that’s out to prove it can contend for a title with someone other than Manning under center.
In fact, Luck’s last game of 2015 came in Week 9 against the Broncos, who lacerated his kidney and tore his abdominal muscle during a typically Denver-like beating that ended in a Colts win, nonetheless.
“He knew he was going to get hit today,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “He didn’t take a lot of chances, though. That’s the type of effect we want to have on a quarterback. You don’t take that many chances on us.”
And when you do, you pay — and start playing catch-up.
Not all his fault, Luck insisted.
“If you say it’s not their defense, then you’re taking credit away from what they did, obviously,” he said. “We get that if we were (against) air, we’d have had 1,000 yards in the first half.”
Instead of piling up stats, the Colts are at the bottom of the AFC South, and their quarterback is in need of a breakthrough. Luck is now 1-5 over his past six starts.
“He was a little off,” Pagano said. “We can go back and look at the tape. But we all saw the same thing.”