INDIANAPOLIS -- First thing’s first: Andrew Luck is a bona fide star.
Not two years from now. Today.
Luck on Sunday was better than any other first-year quarterback in the long history of the NFL. He threw for a rookie-record 433 yards, bombing the Colts past the Dolphins 23-20 in a game rife with postseason implications.
But for all Luck’s brilliance, the Dolphins will likely once again wake up Monday believing they beat themselves as much as they got beat.
That’s because, in the final three minutes, they twice let the game slip through their fingers — including once, quite literally.
Sean Smith dropped a gift interception at the Colts’ 30 on one play, and on the next, a highly debatable holding penalty called on Marlon Moore erased nearly 30 yards of Dolphins’ field position.
Those miscues proved a task too tall for Ryan Tannehill, who played well on his sore left knee but not well enough to win. Tannehill (22 of 38, 290 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions) was able to move the last-ditch Dolphins from their own 17 to midfield, but a potentially game-tying (or even game-winning) drive petered out far from field-goal range.
The result: Yet another three-point loss, which dropped the Dolphins to 4-4 at the season’s halfway mark.
“You look at our games — two overtime losses and then you come out here and lose by three points with the opportunity to win the game — we have what it takes,” a dejected Cameron Wake said afterward. “Today, they finished and we didn’t.”
Based purely on the stat sheet, Sunday’s game shouldn’t have even been close. The Colts (5-3, and now with the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami) crushed the Dolphins in total yards (516-365) and time of possession (holding the ball for nearly 10 more minutes).
Furthermore, the Colts converted a staggering 13 of 19 third-down situations against the team that entered game as the league’s best at getting off the field.
All that is a reflection of Luck, who was simply spectacular. He completed 30 of 48 passes for two touchdowns and those 433 yards — 1 more than the previous best for a rookie (Cam Newton in 2011). But he would have obliterated the record if his receivers did a better job catching the ball.
Former FIU star T.Y. Hilton had six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown but dropped two others. That included a perfectly thrown bomb on which he had a good 10 yards of separation from Smith, who was alone in coverage.
Smith had help from Nolan Carroll on the touchdown Hilton did catch, a 36-yard, high-arching pass in which Hilton, who also starred at Miami Springs High, split the closely bunched defensive backs and somehow came down with the ball.
“I lost it in the lights,” Smith later explained. “After that, I’m no help to nobody.”
As for Carroll’s take?
“I saw the ball the whole time,” said the third-year corner, starting in place of ailing Richard Marshall for the fourth consecutive game. “He timed his jump up better than I did and came down with it.”
That gave the Colts a 20-17 lead late in the third quarter, and the closed-roof Lucas Oil Stadium was on fire. Yet Tannehill silenced them, albeit temporarily, with his 10-play, 52-yard drive resulting in Dan Carpenter’s game-knotting field goal from 31 yards.
For the Dolphins offense, it was the best the unit has looked in weeks. Brian Hartline finished with eight catches for 107 yards, Charles Clay caught his first touchdown pass of the season, and Reggie Bush had one of the most electrifying runs of his career — which is saying something.
Bush started left, following a seal-off block by Jake Long, and then slammed on the brakes. Bush cut back to the middle, and then juked out the last Colts defender for the touchdown, an 18-yard masterpiece.
“I think we were able to move the ball and it was easy to get into a rhythm,” Tannehill said.
But their defense? The group found it nearly impossible to make a stop.
Luck’s uncannily accurate arm and his ability to slip the pass rush allowed the Colts to convert on six third downs of 10 yards or longer. Indy had eight drives of eight or more plays.
“It wasn’t the way we are used to playing,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “There’s no question about it.”
Added Smith: “Luck played great today. He balled out. Amazing.”
And yet, if Smith had hung onto Luck’s deflected pass deep in Indianapolis’ end, or if the officials had kept their hands of the penalty flag during Marcus Thigpen’s ensuing 31-yard punt return …
“When the game’s on the line like that, every play counts,” said Moore, who was flagged for holding even though the Colt he was blocking appeared to simply fall down. “From the start, every play counted. If you don’t get it accomplished, you won’t get the outcome that you want.”