We're only a few days away from the biggest game of Andrew Luck's young career.
Not only is Sunday's tilt against the vaunted Denver Broncos important because the Colts will be looking to finally get over the hump and get back to an AFC Championship game, but also because it represents the first real opportunity for Luck to finally get out of the shadow of his legendary predecessor: Peyton Manning.
There's no doubt that Colts fans are enamored with Luck - that is not up for dispute. The real question is: will he ever replace Peyton in their hearts? More specifically, will he ever surpass Manning on the list of all-time great NFL quarterbacks?
Sure, Luck has been pretty successful over his first few seasons, but Colts fans will begin to get antsy if he doesn't "officially" move into the elite quarterback class fairly soon. He's only been in the league for three seasons, and has shown great improvements throughout his time in Indy - but Jim Irsay and the Colts didn't let Peyton Manning walk to draft a kid whose "improvements" they could flaunt. They want to flaunt rings, the Lombardi Trophy, and a Super Bowl winning quarterback. They drafted Luck because they expect him to deliver the championships that Peyton didn't (one was not enough considering the talent of the teams Manning played on), and if it doesn't happen soon, doubt will begin to creep into the equation.
So the ultimate question - the one we've all been asking since the day Luck walked across the Radio City Music Hall stage in 2012 - remains: will Andrew Luck ever surpass the great Peyton Manning?
3 Early Year Comparisons
The only current tangible comparisons we have up to this point are the statistics from Manning and Luck's first three seasons (all stats from http://www.pro-football-reference.com).
*QBR refers to quarterback rating, and not "Total QBR"
Peyton Manning (1998-2000)
1998: 3,739 yds., 56.7% comp., 26 TD, 28 INT, 233.7 yds/game, 71.2 QBR (3-13 Record)
1999: 4,135 yds., 62.1% comp., 26 TD, 15 INT, 258.4 yds/game, 90.7 QBR (13-3 Record)
2000: 4,413 yds., 62.5% comp., 33 TD, 15 INT, 275.8 yds/game, 94.7 QBR (10-6 Record)
Andrew Luck (2012-2014)
2012: 4,374 yds., 54.1% comp., 23 TD, 18 INT, 273.4 yds/game, 76.5 QBR (11-5 Record)
2013: 3,822 yds, 60.2% comp., 23 TD, 9 INT, 238.9 yds/game, 87.0 QBR (11-5 Record)
2014: 4,761 yds, 61.7% comp., 40 TD, 16 INT, 297.6 yds/game, 96.5 QBR (11-5 Record)
On the surface, there are some curious similarities. Both Manning and Luck improved each year in completion percentage and quarterback rating, and they both plateaued at 26 and 23 touchdowns, respectively, during their first two seasons before exploding in their third years.
Each has the upper hand on the other in a couple of unique aspects as well - Manning didn't "regress" the way Luck did in Year 2, but Luck led his team to a playoff berth in each of his first three seasons (Manning's Colts didn't make the playoffs in his rookie year).
Speaking of playoffs...
Peyton Manning (1999 & 2000)
1999: Manning's first ever playoff game took place in the comfort of home, as the Colts were set to take on the Tennessee Titans - and it would be the only playoff game Manning took part in that year. Manning was a putrid 19 for 42 (45.2% completion) for 227 yards, with no TDs and no picks. He did rush for a score, but it wasn't enough as the Colts fell 19-16 to the Titans.
2000: The following year held a similar fate for third-year starter Manning. This time, though, he had to travel to Miami for the Colts playoff matchup against the Dolphins. Just like the year before, it would be the only playoff game the Colts participated in that winter, falling 23-17 to Miami. Manning had yet another underwhelming performance, throwing for only 194 yards with one throwing touchdown and no INTs.
Bottom line: Manning played more like a game-manager than a game-breaker in these two contests, and it didn't end well either time.
Andrew Luck (2012-2014)
2012: Like Manning before him, Luck struggled during his first shot on the big stage. The Colts went down to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens (in Baltimore) 24-9. Luck threw for 288 yards and had one pass picked off, while also rushing for 35 yards. Despite a stellar rookie year, Luck was unable to muster up another big-time performance against a stifling Baltimore defense.
2013: Luck won the race between him and Manning to their first playoff victory last season, thanks to an incredible comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs. Luck got off to a slow start but dragged his team back into it, and finished off the stunning 45-44 victory with 443 yards passing and four touchdowns (the three picks are worrisome, but excused because of the win). He tacked on 45 yards on the ground, to boot. Unfortunately for Luck, their reward for winning that game was a trip to Foxboro to take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at home - and, as it usually does for those who enter Gillette Stadium, it didn't end well for Luck. The Colts lost 43-22; the second-year gunslinger threw for 331 yards and two scores, but was also picked off four times.
2014: Luck had perhaps his finest statistical playoff performance last week against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Colts 26-10 Wild-Card win. Luck was impressive, composed and made huge plays when his team needed them. He finished with 376 yards and one score, and was accurate all day, finishing with a 70.6% completion percentage.
Bottom line: Luck has had better early-career playoff success than Manning did, but the main issue remains: will Luck ever surpass Manning's legacy?
1 Predicting the Future
Let's do the impossible and try to predict whether or not the Colts let go of the best quarterback they'll ever have (depending on what you think of Johnny Unitas) or if they drafted the man who can dethrone Manning - not only on the list of all-time great Colts, but also all-time great quarterbacks in the history of the sport.
At this point in Luck's career, he's been better than Manning over their first three years, based on some of the more impactful statistics, along with their playoff records. In Year 3, Manning was 0-2, while Luck is sitting at 2-2.
We know that Manning eventually turned around his playoff fortunes (for the most part) but the fact that it took him six years to get his first playoff victory, combined with Luck's early playoff success - and the major role he played in said success - leads me to believe that Luck will never develop the "choker" reputation that Manning has had to carry around since his only Super Bowl victory in 2006. With an 11-12 playoff record, Manning doesn't have much time to turn around the general opinion that he is only a "regular season performer" - whereas Luck conceivably has at least another 12 years to build a legacy as a clutch quarterback.
Luck has already shown flashes that he has "it" - the "it" factor that only few quarterbacks have: that ability to pull a game from the depths of despair or lead a game-winning drive, all while being as relaxed and composed as someone who was going for a leisurely walk. Luck has shown he has the tools, but he's going to need to continue to overcome major playoff obstacles: such as the one he faces this weekend against Manning.
When the final whistle blows on Sunday night, the final score - not the statline - will give us a bit more insight into whether or not Andrew Luck can ever surpass Peyton Manning on the list of all-time greats. The gut feeling here (and somewhat safe prediction) is that Luck will never be able to (at least consistently) put up Peyton-like regular season numbers, but over time he will prove that the Colts made the right choice picking him over Manning thanks to the consistent playoff - and Super Bowl - success Luck will have in Indianapolis.
It just won't happen this weekend. So (try to) be patient, Colts fans.