Luck's comeback season gives Colts momentum heading into bye
By MICHAEL MAROT
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Andrew Luck's health was Indianapolis' biggest question the past two years.
Halfway through his comeback season, the star quarterback looks like his old self and the numbers suggest he's actually playing better.
Luck's strong return has helped the Colts win back-to-back games for the first time in nearly two years and they head into the bye weekend full of momentum and plenty of hope.
"He made some incredible plays. I mean some incredible plays, conversions on third downs, plays that he shouldn't make, plays that normal quarterbacks don't make," first-year coach Frank Reich said, describing Luck's impressive game Sunday at Oakland.
Many wondered if Luck could ever regain the form that had many calling him the league's best young quarterback before Indy took him with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2012.
He exceeded the hype by leading the Colts to playoff appearances in each of his first three seasons and earning Pro Bowl selections all three years, too.
Then came the injuries and the losses. Luck hurt his right shoulder early in the 2015 season and wound up missing nine games - the last seven with a lacerated kidney. He sat out one game in 2016 with a concussion and missed the entire 2017 season after having surgery for a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
But he's answered the critics with a solid first half.
Indy (3-5) needs one more win to match last season's victory total and faces the second-easiest schedule over the second half. They're two games out of the AFC South lead with five division games remaining and Luck getting even stronger.
He is 225 of 342 with 2,187 yards, 23 touchdowns - a pace to set career highs in each category including completion rate (65.8 percent). He's also flirting with the best rating of his career at 96.2. He had a 96.4 in 2016.
Numbers only tell part of the tale, though.
Luck has done it despite losing top receiver T.Y. Hilton for two games with a hamstring injury, Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle for five games with an injured hip and five different starting lineups on the offensive line.
"You're returning from an injury, you're learning a new system, you've got T.Y. Hilton and some receivers hurt and you're breaking in some new linemen - it's not going to be as easy as people think," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said before last weekend's game. "I've got a lot of respect for what he has done in this league and what his capabilities are."
An improving cast could make Luck & Co. even tougher to contend with.
From 2012-17, Colts running backs topped the 100-yard mark just four times. Last week, Marlon Mack became Indy's first back with consecutive 100-yard games since Joseph Addai in 2007.
The revamped offensive line has allowed just 10 sacks, a stark contrast to the 156 times Luck went down in his first 70 starts. In fact, Luck hasn't been sacked in three games - the longest stretch since he left Stanford.
Part of the explanation is Reich's philosophical change, asking Luck to make quicker decisions.
That, too, has showed in the numbers.
His completion rate and rating against defenders within 1 yard of a receiver have jumped from 25.9 percent and a 45.0 rating in 2016 to 36.0 and 72.5 this season.
And while his throws over 20 yards have declined from 2016 to 2018, his rating on throws between 11 and 20 yards has gone from 99.0 to 106.0.
The one bugaboo continues to be interceptions. Luck has thrown eight this season, putting him on a pace to throw more than he has in all but two seasons. But he's thrown five in the past six games and none in four of those six.
"No one on this team is going to go out with a sort of harness on them and say you can't go play full speed," Luck said recently. "I think our coaches do a great job of allowing us to play free and fast and loose, but within that, I guess at the same time you have to play disciplined."
Where would the Colts be if Luck had stayed healthy?
Nobody truly knows.
Yes, he would have reached 20,000 yards passing sooner. The Colts may not have missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons. His progression may have been a little steadier, and all those pesky questions about his arm may never have been an issue.
But, for now, the Colts are just happy to have Luck back, playing well.
"When you have the quarterback that we have there is an expectation that we have to score points," Reich said. "Everybody in this building knows we have an elite quarterback."
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow also contributed to this report.
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Updated November 1, 2018