If Indianapolis hadn’t been completely left for dead after Monday night’s loss in Carolina, that was a function not of people actually believing in the Colts, but of the rest of the AFC South being terrible: Yes, we thought, maybe the Colts can still win their division. But they might do it as a 6-10 team that will get blown out in the wild-card round.
What a difference one Sunday can make.
Yesterday the Colts completely flipped the script, with Andrew Luck playing an excellent game against an outstanding Broncos defense, and Indianapolis beating previously undefeated Denver 27-24. Now the Colts’ 4-5 record doesn’t look so bad, and the rest of the season doesn’t just look like a march toward an early playoff exit and the firing of coach Chuck Pagano. Now there’s a real chance the Colts can make something of this season.
The reason for that is Luck, who played by far the best game of the season. New offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, handed the playcalling duties after Pep Hamilton was fired following the loss to the Panthers, called a good game that finally had Luck making the most of both his great athleticism and his great arm. Luck threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, no fumbles and only one sack, and he added 34 rushing yards. All that against a Broncos defense that just a week earlier had totally shut down the Packers and Aaron Rodgers.
Luck was obviously hurt earlier this season, even if the Colts have been secretive about the precise nature of his injuries, but he also looked like something was wrong with him mentally, as if he had lost his impressive ability to read defenses quickly and was holding onto the ball too long. That changed on Sunday, as Luck was decisive and poised in picking apart the Broncos’ defense. Luck is a truly special talent — if I could pick one player to start a franchise with, I’d want Luck — and with him at the helm, the Colts are going to be a tough team to beat in January.
It’s not that the Colts have solved all their problems. In fact, I still think it’s more likely than not that both G.M. Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano will be fired after the season. The two of them just haven’t done a good enough job of building a good football team around Luck.
But the most important piece of a good football team — the franchise quarterback — is in place.
Luck was the player I most enjoyed watching on Sunday. Here are my other observations:
Marcus Mariota is something special. In leading the Titans to a win over the Saints, Mariota threw for 371 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s the first rookie in NFL history to have at least 350 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a game, and the first rookie ever to have two different games with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Mariota has 13 touchdown passes this year, putting him halfway to the rookie record of 26, which is shared by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. Like the Colts, the Titans can feel confident that they have their most important part in place.
Worried about the Packers? Relax. Last year, “Relax” was Aaron Rodgers’s mantra when fans in Green Bay expressed concern about the Packers’ 1-2 start. That should be the mantra in Green Bay again this year, as the Packers have dropped two straight. Yes, it’s always disappointing to lose two games in a row, but both games were on the road against Super Bowl contenders, in Denver and Carolina. The Packers will play the Lions next week, and that’s just the kind of game they need to turn things around. Green Bay is still an overwhelming favorite to win the NFC North, and still a strong contender to win the Super Bowl.
Toby Gerhart was a healthy scratch. Last year the Jaguars signed Gerhart to a three-year, $10.5 million contract. He responded by averaging just 3.2 yards a carry in 2014, and he’s been even worse this year, averaging 2.2 yards a carry. Yesterday he hit a new low, as he was inactive despite being healthy: The Jaguars no longer even think he’s good enough to play on the 46-man gameday roster. Gerhart’s deal was a big waste, and a reminder of why teams are so reluctant to invest in running backs.
Antonio Brown is amazing. Brown’s 284 receiving yards in the Steelers’ 38-35 win over the Raiders yesterday were a Steelers franchise record, and the most in any NFL game since Calvin Johnson had 329 yards against the Cowboys in October of 2013. The Steelers will need Brown more than ever in the coming weeks, with Ben Roethlisberger out with a foot injury. Brown averaged just 37 yards a game in the three games Michael Vick started this season, but he had 124 yards in the game Landry Jones started, and with Jones likely starting next week against Cleveland, the Steelers will be relying heavily on Brown.
Blaine Gabbert is better than Colin Kaepernick right now. A couple years ago, I thought Gabbert was the worst quarterback in the NFL, and Kaepernick had the potential to change the way the quarterback position was played in the NFL. Now Kaepernick has regressed as a passer to such a great extent that he’s been benched for Gabbert. And Gabbert was pretty good on Sunday in leading the 49ers to an upset win over the Falcons. Unlike Luck, who just had a rough start to the season, Kaepernick looks like there’s something fundamentally wrong with him right now. He’s going to need some time on the sideline, and probably a new team in 2016.
Peyton Manning’s records will have to wait a week. Manning headed into yesterday’s game hoping to break two of Brett Favre’s records, for career passing yards and for most games won as a starting quarterback. But Manning came up three yards shy of the yardage record, and the Broncos lost in Indianapolis. Manning will have to wait until next week, as his old team got the better of him. And his successor as franchise quarterback in Indianapolis showed why he’s the kind of player who might break both of those records some day.