Regardless of whether or not Saturday's playoff match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs is a sellout or not, the game is huge not just for the Indianapolis Colts, but for their second-year quarterback, Andrew Luck.
Like last season, few quarterbacks have done more with less than Luck. He lost his go-to target, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, to a knee injury during the team's Week 7 victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Since then, Luck has had to make it work with a patchwork of inexperienced, young receivers whose first names are spelled Da'Rick, LaVon, and Griff.
Luck finished the year by improving his completion percentage from 54% in 2012 to 60% in 2013. He threw just as many touchdowns as he did in '12, but cut his interceptions in half from 18 to 9. Luck also ran for 377 yards and scored 4 rushing TDs.
However, all the accomplishments during the regular season will be discarded, forgotten, and dismissed if the former No. 1 overall pick goes out there in front of the Lucas Oil Stadium home crowd Saturday and puts up a stinker like he did last year in Baltimore.
Yes, there were unforeseen circumstances that contributed to Luck's struggles in that Wildcard Round game last year, such as his then-offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, getting taken to a hospital due to an illness ten minutes before the start of the game! Arians, who had acted as the Colts' interim head coach for much of 2012 while head coach Chuck Pagano underwent cancer treatments, was unable to call the offensive plays against the Ravens that day. The duties went to the team's former O.C. and current QB coach, Clyde Christensen.
Luck went 28-54 for 288 yards and a pick in the playoff game against Baltimore last year, giving him a 59.8 QB rating for the game. The final score was 24-9 in favor of the Ravens, who would go on to upset Denver and New England before holding up the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XLVII.
For a first outing in the playoffs, Luck's performance was bad. Then again, that's often the case with young quarterbacks. In Peyton Manning's first playoff game back in 2000, during his second season in Indy, he went 19-42 for 227 yards and a rushing TD in a 19-16 upset loss to the Titans. His QB rating was 62.3, which isn't to far removed from Luck's 59.8 rating.
In Manning's second playoff appearance, this time in 2001 against the Dolphins in Miami, he went 17-32 for 194 yards and 1 TD in an eventual 23-17 OT loss. Though Manning's receivers had a few drops in that game - including a sure touchdown that fell in and out of the hands of WR Jerome Pathon - along with a Colts run defense that surrendered 258 rushing yards to Lamar Smith and the Dolphins, the whispers of "can't win the big game" began for Peyton immediately following that playoff loss.
Andrew Luck, the Stanford phenom who was drafted to replace Manning in 2012 after the Colts released him, will hear similar "can't win the big one" whispers too if he plays subpar on Saturday and, more importantly, if the Colts lose the football game.
The similarities between that Dolphins team in the 2001 playoffs and this upcoming match-up against the Chiefs are rather striking.
- During the 2000 regular season, the Colts traveled to Miami on Week 16 and upset the Dolphins 20-13. They then lost to Miami two weeks later (and after the New Year) in the playoffs. In 2013, during the regular season, the Colts played the Chiefs in KC on Week 16 and won in a 23-7 upset victory. Now, in the Wildcard Round, the two will play again.
- The 2000 Dolphins were a run-first team that relied on defense and a game manager at quarterback, just like the 2013 Chiefs.
- Miami won 11 regular season games in 2000. Kansas City won 11 in 2013.
- The 2000 Dolphins were ranked No. 16 in scoring offense (20.2 ppg) and No. 8th overall in scoring defense (14.1 ppg). The 2013 Chiefs are ranked 6th in scoring overall (26.9 ppg) and 5th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg).
Obviously, the style of football played in 2000 is very different than what's played today. But, as you can hopefully see, the comparisons are interesting and a tad bit scary for Colts fans.
As far as playoff games go, no one game is ever a cakewalk. However, this is a game the Colts should win.
They're at home.
They've beaten KC already.
Their quarterback is better.
All the advantages point to Indianapolis. Then again, two weeks ago, it was KC who had all the advantages heading into that game, and the Colts cleaned their clocks anyway due in part to strong QB play by Luck (241 passing yards, 1 TD) and poor play by Alex Smith (153 passing yards, 1 INT, 1 fumble lost).
It's also worth noting that Indianapolis has a 3-0 playoff record against the Chiefs. KC hasn't won a playoff game since 1994, when Joe Montana was their quarterback and Bill Clinton was in his first term as President of the United States.
Overall, this is a match-up that favors Indianapolis, which is why it is so very important that Luck play well and help the Colts win.
During the team's press conferences on Wednesday, when key players like Luck, Trent Richardson, Donald Brown, and Robert Mathis took the podium to talk to the media, each was asked if it was critical to win Saturday's playoff game for fear that, without the win, many of the accomplishments in 2013 simply would not matter. Each player gave the standard, company line answers: We want to win. We have unfinished business. We haven't achieved our goals.
The question hints at something important though: No one cares about AFC South titles and home playoff games if the home team is one-and-done again. Colts owner Jim Irsay has said that one of the reasons he gutted the team and changed the roster in 2012 was to produce fewer "Star Wars numbers" and more playoff victories and championships.
This is why it's critical for Luck to play well and for the Colts to get a playoff victory at home, where they are 2-1 in the postseason at Lucas Oil Stadium.