INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Andrew Luck learned some tough lessons as an NFL rookie.
Now he's using that knowledge to his advantage.
Rather than spend the offseason finishing classes, Luck broke down last season's tapes and figured out what to improve. The Colts' franchise quarterback used those hours of study to become more efficient on the field and develop a more seasoned perspective about playoff football.
"Having that experience is always helpful," Luck said when asked what's different between this week's postseason preparation and last year's. "I feel more comfortable this year as a football player in this league because of that experience."
There's no doubt the 24-year-old wonder kid has grown up in two NFL seasons.
After hearing many experts tab him as the most polished college quarterback since Peyton Manning and the best Stanford prospect since John Elway, he stepped into the most challenging circumstance imaginable — replacing Manning.
Luck has made it look easy.
Even with the constant comparisons to Manning, Luck managed to break NFL rookie records for yards passing (4,374), attempts (627), 300-yard games (six) and tied the league's single-season mark with seven game-deciding drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. He engineered a nine-win improvement, from 2-14 to 11-5, tied for the third-greatest turnaround in league history.
Most importantly, he took the Colts to the playoffs — something even Manning didn't do until his second season in Indy.
This year, with a new but familiar offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton, Luck improved.
Despite throwing almost 60 fewer passes (570), Luck still had 3,822 yards and matched last season's TD total (23). He completed 60.2 percent of his throws, compared with 54.1 percent in 2012, cut the interceptions in half (nine) and increased his quarterback rating from 76.5 to 87.0. He matched Indy's 11-win total against a tougher schedule and won his first division title, setting up Saturday's playoff game against Kansas City (11-5).
A lot has changed in a year.
Indy (11-5) has emphasized the rushing attack and shorter passes more this season than last. Teammates believe Luck has changed, too.
"I think he is just getting even more comfortable with his role. The thing that is fun is he doesn't make those 'rookie' or first or second-year mistakes," said kicker Adam Vinatieri, who has played with Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady and Manning. "He knows if it's not there, throw it away and let's do this. I guess what I'm saying is he manages the game very well and gives us an opportunity to win."
The Chiefs found out just how good Luck has become in Week 16.
In that game, Luck was 26 of 37 for 241 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions while directing an attack that kept the Chiefs' offense on the sideline for nearly 39 minutes.
"He's got that unique combination of size and speed and athletic ability," Kansas City coach Andy Reid said when asked if the Chiefs have to pressure Luck in a different way than other quarterbacks. "He can throw the football on top of that. You've got to handle that a certain way."
Luck has been making opponents pay for those mistakes at a historic pace.
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, Russell Wilson is the only quarterback to win more games (24) in his first two NFL seasons than Luck or Ben Roethlisberger (22). Luck is poised to become the 10th player since 1950 to start a playoff game in each of his first two NFL seasons. The list includes Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. Seattle's Wilson will become No. 11 next weekend.
If Luck beats the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks, he will celebrate his first playoff victory four seasons before Manning accomplished the feat. And playoff win No. 1 for Luck would come after the Colts lost two starting running backs, a starting tight end, a starting offensive lineman and Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne to season-ending injuries.
Inside team headquarters, it's no surprise. During the offseason, Hamilton and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen broke down every snap Luck took as a rookie, looking at the good, the bad and the ugly.
All that offseason work has helped Luck evolve on the field.
"I think he's gotten to the point to where he better understands and he can trust that his check-down is going to be at a certain spot or after two hitches it's time to pull the ball down and try and run and get what you can and get down and or get out of bounds," said Hamilton, who coached Luck at Stanford before joining Indy.
Teammates are impressed with what they've seen, too.
"He knows how to approach the game and how to manage the game and how to win games. He's the guy, his shoulders have definitely gotten a lot more broader and being able to support the team," Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis said. "He's been very clutch for us this year."
The Colts are going to need more of the same from Luck to advance in the postseason. At least this time he has a much better idea of how to handle all the things that come with playoff football.
"The sort of 'one-and-done, win-or-go-home,' I think that's special," Luck said. "It's what makes the NFL playoffs, any playoffs, awesome."
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