In a battle of unlikely AFC playoff contenders Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium — and with Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano in attendance for the first time since he was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 21 — it was the play of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck that proved to be all the difference in a 23-20 National Football League win over the Miami Dolphins.
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in last spring’s NFL draft, completed 30 of 48 passes for a single-game rookie record 433 yards and added a pair of touchdown throws as the Colts posted their third straight win.
It was also their third straight home victory since dropping a last-second 22-17 decision to Jacksonville, this week’s opponent, on Sept. 23. Indianapolis, now 5-3 for the year, improved its chances to be a viable wild-card playoff team with the win. Now its on to a nationally televised game (NFL Network) with the AFC South rival Jaguars on Thursday night.
“Just go to work [today]. Don’t worry about December, January, those are long-range goals. All we can do is control [what happens this week],” interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said after Sunday’s game.
“We’ve got a very short week. We’ve got a practice [today] and Tuesday. We get on a plane Wednesday and play on Thursday night. We’re beat up. That was a physical football game. We’re going to play a division game on the road Thursday night. So we’ve got to respect the process each day, one play at a time, one day at a time, and then let the games come.”
While Adam Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal with 5:58 remaining in the game provided the winning margin for Indianapolis, it was Luck who continually made plays in pressure situations that put the Colts in a position to secure the victory.
How good was the former Stanford signal caller? Very. He ended the day with his second-highest game-day passer rating (105.6) of the season, which was impressive enough. But what he accomplished on third down, against one of the league’s best third-down defenses, was downright remarkable.
Luck completed 13 of 17 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown on third down. He kept the chains moving all afternoon as he continually scrambled out of potential trouble and found open receivers downfield.
The Dolphins’ third-down defensive percentage was an NFL-best 26.4 percent (28 of 106). But against Indianapolis and Luck, their average was 68 percent (13 of 19). And when the Colts threw the ball on third down, that percentage became an eye-popping 77 percent.
“[Luck’s] play today was superb. It was Pro Bowl-caliber play. I know he broke the rookie single-game record … [but it was] a team effort,” Arians voiced. “I can’t say enough about our [offensive] tackles. They played their tails off against some really good pass rushers. They took the challenge and went with it.”
Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake had recorded 7.5 sacks over his last four games. As a defensive unit, Miami had registered 22 sacks this season, which was good enough for second in the AFC. Wake, though, had the Dolphins’ only sack of the day against Indianapolis and that didn’t come until early in the third quarter.
Arians credited starting tackles Anthony Castonzo and Winston Justice, as well as backup Bradley Sowell, for the Colts’ pass protection. Justice left the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury and was replaced by Sowell.
Luck’s ability to get himself out of tough situations also helped. He scrambled away from the pass rush on several occasions and kept plays alive — often on third down.
“He’s just a gifted athlete. [Miami rookie quarterback] Ryan [Tannehill is] the same way. They can move around. They have a great feel in the pocket. [Luck is] so big and strong,” Arians said. “He can throw guys off like [Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback] Ben [Roethlisberger] used to. I don’t like to compare them because [Luck is] kind of a unique cat. But I’m just glad he’s our quarterback.”
In addition to Luck’s heroics Sunday, rookie running back Vick Ballard added 60 yards on 16 carries. Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne hauled in a team-high seven passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. Rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton, meanwhile, had six catches for 102 yards and a TD.
Miami had taken a 17-13 lead into the locker room at halftime. The Dolphins had scored on a 37-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter, a 31-yard pass from Tannehill to tight end Charles Clay and an 18-yard run by Reggie Bush.
The Colts stayed within striking distance on a 9-yard TD pass to Wayne and a pair of field goals by Vinatieri (23 and 47 yards). Vinatieri had missed two earlier kicks from 48 yards (wide right) and 54 yards (partially blocked).
Luck’s 36-yard throw into the end zone to Hilton, in which he caught the ball while sandwiched by two Miami defenders, gave Indianapolis its first lead of the game with 1:49 remaining in the third quarter.
Carpenter’s second field goal on the day, a 31-yard effort early in the fourth quarter, had tied the score at 20-20. After Vinatieri’s kick had given the Colts the lead, the Indianapolis defense — which struggled to stop Tannehill for most of the afternoon — stepped up to close things out.
Tannehill completed 22 of 38 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice (Mathis and a team sack). Wide receiver Brian Hartline caught a game-high eight passes for 107 yards. Bush added 41 yards rushing in 10 carries and a TD.
“Obviously, it was a very joyous locker room [after the game]. We’ve got a resilient bunch of guys. We lost players during the game, guys stepped in. So many, I can’t name them all. It was a definite team effort again,” Arians said.
“I’ll let you guys write about records and all those things but the only record we care about is our wins and losses. That was a big win for us. We’ve got a very short week to get ready for Jacksonville.”
We’ll see who is healthy enough to go down there and play.”