By MICHAEL MAROT, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Andrew Luck spent his rookie season dealing with the harsh realities of the NFL.
The hand-picked successor to Peyton Manning took the hard knocks with a smile, dusted himself off and emerged as the tough, talented competitor Indianapolis coaches and scouts expected when they drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick.
"We know how tough he is from a mental perspective. He's going to study. He's going to prepare. We know that," coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday. "He's unflappable, nothing bothers him."
Not the 41 sacks, not the late hits, not the dropped balls, not even the 18 interceptions. Luck has adjusted.
Despite completing less than 50 percent of his passes over the past three weeks, he has avoided throwing an interception in any of those games. He heads into his playoff debut with five wins in his last six games and a season-long streak of 105 consecutive passes without a pick — the kind of numbers Luck has been striving for all season.
"I guess it was a sore spot for the offense," Luck said. "I know a lot of games, I felt like those interceptions, fumbles really killed any momentum we had or killed our chance to win. It's something you focus on as a quarterback, limiting turnovers. I wish maybe it could have come a little sooner but glad to stay away from the interceptions the last few weeks."
If Luck had cut down the turnovers in October or November, perhaps the Colts (11-5) would have taken the AFC South title and had a first-round bye instead of a wild-card round date in Baltimore (10-6) on Sunday.
But Indy can't quibble with what has been one of the league's most remarkable rookie seasons.
Luck won more games than any quarterback taken No. 1 in football's modern draft era. He tied an NFL record by leading Indianapolis to seven fourth-quarter wins. He presided over a nine-game turnaround from 2011 on a team that many expected to be the league's worst, finished with the league's best record (9-1) in one-possession games and broke the franchise record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (five).
He also threw more passes (627) and for more yards (4,374) than any first-year quarterback in league history while breaking the single-game rookie record for yards passing (433) and falling 15 completions short of Sam Bradford's rookie mark for completions (354 to 339). Luck finished third all-time among rookies in TD passes (23), trailing only Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson (each with 26), and had a better quarterback rating (76.5) than Manning (71.2) or John Unitas (74.0) in their rookie seasons.
And Luck did all that with six receivers who had never lined up with the Colts until September, despite the pressure of replacing Manning and during a season in which his offensive coordinator spent 12 weeks as the interim head coach before returning last week.
Luck never allowed any of that stuff to sidetrack him.
"Ever since the first day I saw him, he's been a leader. He doesn't really get razzled or get nervous or anxious or stuff like that," right tackle Winston Justice said. "Did he grow some? Maybe, but I didn't really see it. He's been a good player since the first day he got here."
Still, Luck's completion percentage is just 54.1, largely because the Colts have taken so many chances down the field. He threw the third-most interceptions in the league (18) and lost five fumbles, too, mistakes Luck took personally.
But if quarterbacks are judged simply by wins and losses, Luck is already among the league's best.
Only four quarterbacks — Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub — won more games than the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up this season. Only two others, Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, matched Luck's win total. Luck has beaten three playoff teams (Minnesota, Green Bay and Houston) and like Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and T.J. Yates over the last several years, will try to prove Sunday that rookie quarterbacks can win on the road in the playoffs.
"My advice would be go about your business as you always would on a normal week. It's obviously gotten you to the point that you're in the playoffs and playing to get to another week," Flacco told a group of Indy reporters during a conference call Wednesday. "If it got you that far, then you're obviously doing something right, so you should try to continue that. You shouldn't try anything crazy just because it's playoff time."