Luck can't rescue Colts in another loss to Patriots

Zak Keefer
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) drops back to pass as he's pressured by New England Patriots defensive tackle Dominique Easley (99) during second half action of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, at Lucas Oil Stadium.

If there was a silver lining — and by the time this one was over, it was just about impossible to find a sliver of a silver lining — it came in the starting quarterback making his first start in three weeks against the team that has humbled him, severely and relentlessly, throughout the early part of his NFL career.

Andrew Luck was back.

"I think you get right back in the rhythm," Luck said. "By no means was I perfect. I missed some throws I need to hit. That has nothing to do with my well-being or health. That's stuff I've got to clean up."

By game’s end, the Colts’ franchise quarterback, sore throwing shoulder or not, had put together a solid, if not overly impressive, outing against his greatest nemesis — Bill Belichick’s New England machine — completing 30-of-50 throws for 312 yards and three touchdowns. The end was familiar: The Patriots won 34-27, and it wasn’t even that close.

Yet it wasn’t vintage Luck. Not yet. A first-half rhythm disappeared as the game wore on. Luck’s passes sailed high, they sailed wide, they sailed off-target, a rarity for Luck in his three-plus seasons in Indianapolis. The rust showed.

"They obviously out-executed us," Luck said. "We missed opportunities. In part, they force you to miss opportunities. Disappointing, disappointing start of that (second) half, even really the meat of that half."

Luck has lost his first five starts against New England, two of which have come in the playoffs. Peyton Manning knows his pain. He lost his first six starts to the Patriots after Tom Brady took over as quarterback in 2001. They remain the riddle he can’t solve.

Luck threw for a trifecta of touchdowns, a first-quarter fade to Donte Moncrief and a second-quarter improvisation that demonstrated, in a few fleeting moments, how rare a talent Luck is. With the pocket collapsing, he ad-libbed, scooting away from the blitz and side-arming a short throw to T.Y. Hilton for a 3-yard touchdown. It was Luck at his sandlot-football best, making something from nothing the way few quarterbacks in this league can.

To date, Luck has never finished a game against the Patriots without throwing at least one interception. He did so Sunday.

In addition to his newly-judicious offensive approach, Luck made New England pay with his legs. He ran four times for 35 yards, extending broken plays when the Colts’ options looked bleak at best.

He was coolly efficient on the first drive of the game, hitting for eight completions in nine throws for 62 yards. On fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 5-yard-line, the Colts gambled on Luck’s right shoulder, the one that kept him on the sidelines the first two weeks of October. He lobbed a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone that Moncrief hauled in for the team’s first touchdown.

"We needed a couple more of those drives," Luck said.

Not insignificant was the game called by Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who dialed back the hero ball (a Luck staple) and trusted the West Coast scheme that Matt Hasselbeck executed so efficiently in a pair of wins over the past two weeks. With it, Luck rarely sought the downfield dagger that, in his first three starts this season, dug him and the Colts their early-season grave. Instead it was check-down, check-down, over the middle, over the middle.

It was smart over sexy. It was what was necessary. It was mistake-free football.

Turnovers – namely Luck’s 10 interceptions in his first four starts versus New England – are what have buried the Colts in this series. Sunday night, playing for the first time 21 days, Luck made sure of one thing: If the Colts were going to lose this game, he wasn’t going to be the one that beat them.

It proved Luck wasn’t fibbing earlier in the week when he allowed he’d be open to a shift in the Colts’ offensive thinking based on the somewhat-surprising success enjoyed by Hasselbeck.

“I think getting rid of it and getting it in the right guy’s hands can work,” he said.

But there’s more to it than that. Luck’s actions — read: his audibles — speak louder than any sound bite. There was a discipline to his game Sunday night that wasn’t there in the season’s first three weeks, when Luck looked, too often, like he was trying to be Superman. His costly errors nearly dug the Colts an 0-3 hole to start the season.

They’re now 3-3. The good news? Their starting quarterback’s back in the huddle, not on the sideline.

Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134. Follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.

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