NFL football is an incredibly complicated game played by rotating, changing platoons of 11 men formed from squads of 45 players by a dozen or more coaches and a small army of executives, staff and interns.
Yet fans and the media often boil the whole game down to just two people: the quarterbacks.
We insist on quoting win-loss records and counting "rings" for quarterbacks while erasing the efforts of hundreds of other people in the process. Coming into the Wild Card Round matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, most of the talk revolved around which of the two quarterbacks would win the game.
Andrew Luck won the game.
Of course, the Colts got contributions from the running game, the receivers, the offensive line and the defense. Of course, Andy Dalton and the Bengals made more mistakes and fewer positive plays. The game, though, was carried on Luck's broad shoulders.
Statistically, he was nearly flawless. He completed 70.5 percent of his 44 passes for an average of 8.55 yards per attempt, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Realistically, he was even better.
It's hard to overstate how talented and dedicated the Bengals secondary is. Between Terence Newman, Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Adam Jones, the Bengals had five first-round cornerbacks dressed out for this game. That group, plus safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, has shut down passing offenses all year long.
During the regular season, the Bengals tied for fifth in the NFL in interception rate, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and allowed the third-lowest NFL passer efficiency rating. They collectively embarrassed Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Week 16 and seemed to get a hand on nearly every first-quarter pass Luck threw.
Luck's targets consistently let him down. Nearly every catch was contested, and nearly every contested catch was dropped. This isn't necessarily news. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charted Reggie Wayne as having dropped the fifth-most passes among all NFL receivers this season, while T.Y. Hilton finished 31st. Tight end Coby Fleener came in at the top (or bottom) of PFF's Drop Rate rankings for tight ends.
Jack Browne of Pro Football Spot wasn't exactly surprised by the offensive miscues:
Despite the rampant case of butterfingers from his receivers and a costly fumble by running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, however, Luck still moved the ball down the field.
A combination of handoffs and dump-offs to Herron got the Colts a quick seven points on the opening possession, but the Bengals answered with a heavy dose of tailback Jeremy Hill. The apparent running back duel only lasted a quarter, though, as Luck got the Colts in position for back-to-back field-goal drives. Had Hilton or Wayne held onto some key Luck passes, those could have been touchdown drives.
It looked like the Colts could've all but put the Bengals away at the end of the first half, but Dennard made a key strip of Herron:
Instead of the Colts going up 16-7 right before halftime, the Bengals' Mike Nugent drilled a career-best 57-yard field goal to make it 13-10.
In the second half, Luck and the Colts pulled away. The Bengals pass rush, with little help from potential X-factor Wallace Gilberry, infrequently pressured Luck. When the defenders got to him, as they did on his stunning third-quarter touchdown strike to Donte Moncrief, he made them pay.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, per Kevin Bowen of the Colts' official site, called this throw "magical" and an example of "Andrew at his finest":
The Bengals secondary responded with increasingly physical play, even as Kirkpatrick and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga left with injuries. The Colts kept making mental mistakes, as a Moncrief penalty wiped a Fleener touchdown off the board, but Luck simply would not let them fail.
On the other side of the ball, Dalton did a commendable job of avoiding the unforced errors that have plagued him in the postseason. Missing receiver A.J. Green, though, and tight end Jermaine Gresham, he simply didn't have the weapons to keep up with Luck. Mohamed Sanu led all Bengals receivers with three receptions...
Scratch that. Sanu had all the catches among Bengals wide receivers. Every other completed Dalton pass went to a running back or tight end.
The Colts defense deserves credit, as it stiffened after Cincinnati's opening drive. Indianapolis allowed just 76 yards rushing to Hill and the rest of the Bengals tailbacks. Big plays from cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler prevented a few Dalton deep strikes from landing (including a late flea flicker).
Sunday, though, was Luck's day. Not only did he refuse to lose this game, but he answered a lot of questions about his ability to do it all by himself in the wake of some rough stretch-run performances.
As the Colts advance to the divisional round, Luck will again go head-to-head against a quarterback who lost his last playoff game in a turnover-laden disgrace.
That quarterback, though, will be Peyton Manning, and he'll be leading the Denver Broncos. Despite all the other players on both sides of the ball, all of the spectacular talent and excellent coaches both teams have, the game will be forever remembered by which of the two quarterbacks played better.
Regardless of whether that's fair, history will debate, but there can be no debate Sunday. Luck outclassed Dalton, and that's why the Colts are heading to Denver while the Bengals head home.