After a four-year hiatus, Andrew Luck will return to the NFL playoffs this Saturday. It’s been so long since Luck played in a postseason game that it’s easy to forget his last appearance came in the 2014 season’s AFC championship—a game that isn’t remembered for the final result, but for the chaos that followed. That was the matchup that sparked Deflategate, the NFL’s investigation into under-inflated footballs that set off a chaotic news cycle that lasted for more than a year and eventually earned Tom Brady a four-game suspension.
After the fact, Brady’s ball boys got more attention for their actions during that game than Luck or the Colts got for theirs. But Luck’s last playoff appearance was notable because of his performance too: It was the worst game of his entire career. Deflated footballs or not, the Patriots wallopped the Colts 45-7, as Luck completed 12 of 33 passes for 126 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions.
That game serves as a microcosm for Luck’s postseason legacy up to this point. While Luck—when healthy—has routinely played like one of the best QBs in the league in the regular season, he’s been one of the worst in the playoffs. Luck appeared in the playoffs at the end of the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons, and each trip he recorded more interceptions than touchdowns. He’s never had a completion percentage above 59 percent in an entire postseason or a passer rating above 77.0.
Most quarterbacks’ stats decline some in the postseason as they face some of the league’s elite defenses. But even with that in mind, Luck’s numbers are uninspiring. Among the 18 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 80 pass attempts in the playoffs since Luck’s first postseason appearance, Luck ranks 15th in adjusted yards per attempt and 16th in passer rating, behind players like Blake Bortles and Matt Schaub. And even though Luck hasn’t been in the playoffs in four years, he has more postseason interceptions (12) than any other quarterback since 2012.
Of course, Luck has occasionally had moments of postseason brilliance, like when he led the Colts back from a 31-10 halftime deficit against the Chiefs in the 2014 wild-card round, throwing for 443 yards and four touchdowns in the game. Or when he recorded 376 yards and a TD in a relatively easy wild-card win over the Bengals in 2015. But those are the only two games of Luck’s postseason career in which he threw for more touchdowns than interceptions.
This postseason represents a chance for Luck to change his playoff history. He’s experienced a second act under new head coach Frank Reich, and he’s playing in an offensive system that’s perfectly designed to protect and support him. He’s getting the football out faster, making easier throws, and taking fewer hits, all of which has led to him looking to be a fresher, more modern version of the quarterback who tore up the league for the first few years of his career.
This offseason the Colts replaced the slow-developing, complex offense employed by Chuck Pagano with the more modern system Reich brought over from Philadelphia. In 2018, Luck took an average of 2.63 seconds between receiving the snap and throwing the football, tied for the ninth-quickest release in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In 2016—the earliest year for which data is available—Luck was releasing the ball in 2.88 seconds, which was tied for the third-slowest release. And between those two seasons, Luck’s average intended air yards per throw has dropped from 8.9 yards to 7.6, as tracked by NFL Next Gen Stats. Some of those shorter throws early in the season looked like a deliberate effort to make things easy on the injured shoulder that kept Luck out all of 2017—
After missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, Andrew Luck started off the season by throwing shorter passes, but has since seen a steady increase in air yards per pass attempt:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 2, 2019
Week 1-3: 5.6 air yards/att
Week 4-17: 8.1 air yards/att#INDvsHOU #Colts pic.twitter.com/xdQgs1ZELB
—but even as his arm strength has returned, the air yards haven’t completely rebounded. This is an offensive shift, and the focus on quicker, shorter passes has kept Luck on schedule, and, crucially, upright. Luck has been sacked just 18 times this season, going down on a league-low 2.7 percent of his dropbacks, and the Colts offensive line has kept him clean on 479 dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, the second-highest total after the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. That’s an incredibly important development for a player who spent an entire season away from the NFL just to get healthy enough to throw a football again.
Add it all up, and 2018 was the best season of Luck’s career. He hit career highs in traditional stats like completion percentage and passer rating as well as more advanced metrics like QBR and Pro Football Focus grade. He threw for 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, leading the Colts on a 9-1 tear to finish the year and make the playoffs. Though he was snubbed by the Pro Bowl, Luck will almost certainly win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Luck and Colts will face the Texans in the wild-card round Saturday, and the two teams are acutely familiar with one another. It was the Texans’ win over the Colts in Week 4 that snapped Houston’s early three-game losing streak and set up the team’s run of nine straight wins. That streak was broken by the Colts in Week 14, in a win that became crucial for Indy’s playoff hopes. Both games were closely contested affairs, as each was decided by exactly three points. Luck was phenomenal in both games. Last month he led the Colts to a 24-21 win in Houston by throwing for 399 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception (which came on a tipped pass). And in the team’s September loss, he threw for 464 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Houston has the top overall rushing defense in the league by DVOA, but the Texans rank just 18th against the pass—which presents Luck with the perfect opponent to begin rewriting his playoff narrative. His new-look offense has already given the Texans defense fits this season. Getting the ball out quickly can neutralize pass rushers like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, and Luck can go toe-to-toe with solid defensive backs in Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Justin Reid, and Tyrann Mathieu.
The 2018 regular season was not just a comeback year for Luck, but maybe the masterpiece of his career so far. He’s already put up his best NFL season-long numbers and guided a team that started out 1-5 to the postseason. Now the only question is whether, this time, he can continue that success in the playoffs.