INDIANAPOLIS –Time was of the essence last Sunday with half a minute to play in a game that had been tied by Minnesota just seconds earlier.
The Colts were at their 20-yard line with two timeouts remaining, an offense featuring a handful of rookies and a line utilizing only one player at his natural position.
A snarling Minnesota defensive line stared down a rookie quarterback who was about to piece together what will be the first of many beautiful career moments.
Andrew Luck guided the Colts 45 yards with two completions and a penalty, setting up a game-winning field goal for a 23-20 victory.
The drive made a huge difference for a young team that has a large number of players who are rookies or in their first year (15 on opening day, the AFC's second-highest total). There is a world of difference between regulation and overtime pressure, and there is an even greater difference between 1-1 and 0-2.
Head Coach Chuck Pagano has seen Luck perform during the spring, training camp and preseason, and he has yet to see any moment too big for his young quarterback. Now, Pagano has seen him become the first NFL rookie to lead a September fourth-quarter game-winning drive since Archie Manning did it for New Orleans on September 19, 1971, almost 18 years to the day before Luck was born.
In recounting the moment on Monday, Pagano cited Luck's command of the offense.
"Just again for a first-year player, for a rookie quarterback to do it at this level, against a defense like Minnesota and the front four and the rushers they have (it's impressive)," said Pagano. "Again, credit the offensive line for doing the job that they did on the first play. The rush, Jared (Allen) came up and did an up-and-under on Anthony (Castonzo) and Anthony flattened him out, and he (Luck) was able to feel the pressure and spin out of there and throw a strike to Donnie Avery.
"Then the next play, they brought a weak-side zone pressure, the weak-side linebacker and the free safety. He recognizes the blitz from film study, gets the protection changed and re-identified everything. Everybody got it blocked up, and he knows he's got single, high middle safety, and he knows we're one-on-one on the outside. We run a deep in-cut with Reggie (Wayne) and (Andrew) finds him and (threw) a strike there.
"Then the quick slant on the third play of that drive. So just hats off to Andrew and the rest of the offense, the offensive line and the skill players around him for doing their homework and being able to execute in that type of situation."
Luck helped the offense run error-free on Sunday, an improvement from the opener when the team dropped the turnover battle in a loss to Chicago. He directed a two-minute drive in the Bears outing that was impressive, hitting four-of-five passes for 59 yards.
In addition to the game-deciding drive last Sunday, Luck zipped the Colts to a touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half.
In two games, he has hit 10-of-14 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown in three two-minute situations, producing 10 points and while two of his incompletions were spiked attempts. On the touchdown drive against Minnesota, he had a seven-yard run just prior to striking on the 30-yard payoff toss to Reggie Wayne.
"We've all seen glimpses of what he's capable of doing," said Pagano. "The guy is mature beyond his years. He's a talented, talented guy. I don't know going in if everybody would do that with their quarterback, but that's just the trust and faith we have with the guys up front, even though we're playing with a MASH unit, so to speak, the tight ends, the skilled players that are around him, the backs, the protection and certainly the quarterback making it all happen.
With Minnesota having scored 14 points in the final five minutes to tie a contest Indianapolis led most of the way, it was decision time for Pagano with 31 ticks left on the clock. A coach who urges his troops to battle for 60 minutes with all they have did not hesitate, let alone blink.
"It was one of those deals we talked about (that) we're going to be aggressive," said Pagano. "There was enough time on the clock. We'd just practiced the situation, so they were well-versed. We had two timeouts, and we said, 'Let's give this thing a run for the money.' "
The game was decided by a 53-yard field goal by veteran Adam Vinatieri, a player who has mastered key moments frequently over his 17-year career, a couple of times in championship play.
Luck was now trying to master the first clutch moment of his two-game career, and he was cool.
"I think you try not to think too much. We practice situations like that a lot," said Luck. "I think looking back at Minnesota's previous game (against Jacksonville), a very similar situation came up. We talked about what we would do in that situation. You have to go out there and sort of not worry about too many things and sort of let it rip."
The Colts sit at 1-1 and players concede it is nice to get a victory early since it negates a topic that would arise otherwise until one was earned.
As for Luck, he will keep grinding as always. Pagano will as well since divisional play starts this Sunday against the Jaguars. Pagano has no inkling that Luck's success will go to his head.
"Absolutely not. This is probably one of the most humble guys that I've ever been around, certainly on this football team," said Pagano. "This guy understands the value of work ethic and team and passion and studying and being a pro, even at an early stage in his career. There is no way that would (happen).
"It's just not in his DNA. It's not how the kid's wired. It's not how he was raised. … I don't worry about that."