"Must-win" is such an overused term in sports, and I am certainly guilty of exacerbating the overuse of the term here, but there doesn't seem to be any other way to analyze the task in front of one of the brightest young players in the NFL today without using (read: overusing) it now.
Andrew Luck must win against the Denver Broncos this weekend, not only to keep his team alive in the NFL playoffs—that's a reason every quarterback finds himself in a similar must-win situation this time of year—but to really start to earn the esteem he's been given after three years in the league.
The guy is great at his job, and his early-career numbers indicate he is on an upward trajectory that very few in the history of the league have ever attempted to navigate. One such signal-caller is the man on the other side of the field this weekend, and it's hard to expect Peyton Manning will be in too magnanimous a mood with his own playoff legacy still hanging in the balance.
In short, there will be no torch passed from Manning to Luck on Sunday, and the only way for Luck to advance on the path we all expect his career to go is to walk straight up to Manning and rip that torch right out of his hand.
Politely, of course. Luck is nothing if not well-mannered.
Why, after just three seasons in the league and four playoff games under his belt, is this contest a must-win for Luck? Because of comments like this, from former New York Giants head coach-turned-talking head Jim Fassel, via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:
Co-Hosting The Coaches Show on Tuesday, former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel suggested the [sic] Luck could even surpass Manning in NFL lore before it's all said and done.
"He'll go down as the greatest quarterback of all time," Fassel stated. "The numbers he has already put up as a young quarterback, far superior to anybody else that came in the league in their first four, five or six years the numbers he's put up. If he keeps at that pace ... Whoa!"
Whoa, indeed. This is a guy who has played 52 career games—including playoffs—and has been so good for most of them that people are giving him the "best of all time" moniker. Whoa.
Whoa. Whoa...whoa. What are we saying here? The football media are so caught up in the notion that Luck has had a fast start to his NFL career, which has more than validated his 2012 No. 1 draft selection, that we're putting him in a conversation with people like Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, John Elway and a short list of other all-timers who spent decades—generations even—earning the right to be thought of as the best of all time.
(Note: It's not just talking heads, and this sentiment is nothing new this year. Seattle wideout Doug Baldwin—Luck's teammate at Stanford—said last year that Luck could be the greatest ever, and his coach Chuck Pagano said he will be "probably one of the best, if not the best ever to play this game.")
That's why Luck has to win, because he hasn't done enough to earn what people are giving him.
He knows that. Any right-minded person who loves great NFL quarterbacking knows that too.
What's most incredible about Luck, more than the gaudy statistics and the athletic prowess and the uncanny poise he shows in the pocket, is the maturity beyond his years he has demonstrated off the field. It helps, for sure, that he's also a brilliant guy—some kind of footballing genius, in a lot of ways.
Luck is so smart, and he gets his opponents to like him so much that it impacts the way they play. Luck congratulates opposing players after sacks. He routinely asks opposing defenders for assistance up off the ground then thanks them for the helping hand.
When asked this week about the goofy beard he's been sporting this season, he candidly replied, "I realize it’s a bad look," before explaining that both his mother and girlfriend hate it, but he doesn't want to get razor burn during the season.
Smart, polite and self-effacing. If you don't love Andrew Luck—and his giant wooly beard—you are doing sports wrong.
Though, while he may be the most likable quarterback in the game, he's not the best. Not yet.
He has to win a big game first, and he hasn't won enough of those to be anywhere near the conversation of the guy he replaced in Indianapolis, who just so happens to be the same guy he faces this weekend.
And with that, I've now managed to hit on two items on the sportswriting trope list that I hate yet still used in this article: quarterback wins. The notion of quarterback wins is a horrific measurement tool, and too many the-Earth-is-flat scribes over the years have used it (and pitcher wins, but that's another article for another day) to compare greatness among the game's elite.
Even Luck knows how silly quarterback wins can be, pointing out to a reporter, in his own polite way after the win over Cincinnati, that he's not actually facing Manning in the next round, so stacking up wins doesn't make a whole lot of sense, via NFL.com:
We face the Broncos, in a sense. I've never been into the quarterback-versus-quarterback thing, you know, we're not on the field at the same time. But I have a lot of respect for [Manning] obviously. What he does, what he still does, is amazing. He's a stud, but I'll worry about the Denver defense. That's what I've got to worry about.
That Denver defense should be better than what Cincinnati was able to do against Luck, which amounted to a whole lot of nothing in the Wild Card Round. Luck passed for 376 yards on 31-of-44 passing, with at least a full hand's worth of drops, throwing for one touchdown with no turnovers while adding 18 yards on the ground for nearly 400 yards of total offense.
Luck was masterful, even with the drops hurting his numbers, and he proved that he can step up in the playoffs and deliver a game when his team needs him the most.
Luck is now 2-2 in the playoffs—again with the silly win totals, I know—but he has just seven touchdowns to eight interceptions in those games, even with the stellar outing against the Bengals. His numbers leading into this year have not been great. They certainly haven't been worthy of a guy being lauded as the future best of all time.
In his first career playoff game, as a rookie, Luck threw for just under 52 percent and no touchdowns with two turnovers in a defeat at Baltimore. Last year, he led the Colts over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round with two scores in the fourth quarter—the first of which came on a fumble recovery he carried into the end zone, and the second came on the eventual game-winning 64-yard touchdown throw to T.Y. Hilton—but his numbers were all over the map, tossing four touchdowns and three interceptions on 29-of-45 passing.
A week later against New England, Luck had two touchdown passes while completing less than half his throws, saddled by four more interceptions, two of which led directly to scores for the Patriots, in a 43-22 blowout loss.
Quarterback wins don't matter, but the losses often do, especially in the playoffs. And regardless of whether or not his record has been an indication of his play, it cannot be overstated that Luck did not take good enough care of the football last postseason, and if he's going to be remembered as the best, he needs to play better in the playoffs.
It needs to start now.
Luck was right that he doesn't face Manning, Brady or any other quarterback on the field, but when we are comparing greats of the game, that doesn't always matter.
Luck could throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, and Manning could hand the ball off to C.J. Anderson three dozen times and throw two picks, but if Denver beats Indy 37-35, history—and the narrative therein—will remember that time Peyton beat Luck in the playoffs forever.
How many more times do you realistically think we're going to get this matchup in the playoffs? How many more times will Luck get to face either Manning or Brady in a win-or-go-home situation? Those guys are old, in a football context, and while Luck may end up being better than either of them when all their careers are laid to rest, getting a chance at the start of his prime to beat either Manning or Brady (or both this year) at the end of theirs is an opportunity he needs to take advantage of if he can.
And yet, that's a big—enormous—if. Luck's team isn't nearly as good as Manning's. Luck's defense is good, but it's hardly a world-class unit like fellow third-year signal-caller (and Super Bowl champion) Russell Wilson gets to play with in Seattle, for example.
Luck's running backs do not exist at all, and his best receiver leads the NFL in playoff drops since 2012. He has as little help as anyone in his position quite possibly could. It's almost too much to ask.
Quarterback wins don't matter, but they could for Luck, because of how much he has to do for his team to win. Aaron Rodgers is likely going to win the MVP this season, and there's a very good case to be made that Luck did far more at the position with far less than Rodgers or anyone else in the league this year.
Value? It's hard to imagine anyone was more valuable to his team than Luck in 2014.
Is it fair, then, to suggest Luck is in a must-win situation against Manning and Denver? No, it's not fair. There is very little chance his team will go into Denver and win, so fair isn't even part of this conversation.
It's not fair that people are saying he is going to be the best quarterback of all time, either. But people keep doing that, and until he wins a game like he has the opportunity to do this weekend, Luck may never prove them right.