To assess Andrew Luck’s worth, Colts owner Jim Irsay points to win over Denver

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 08: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after the 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – While discussing how best to move forward with his most irreplaceable employee, Jim Irsay insisted on looking at the silver lining in Andrew Luck’s darkest season.

His mind kept replaying the Indianapolis Colts’ Nov. 8 meeting with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Lucas Oil Stadium. Luck appeared fully recovered from injuries to his right shoulder and ribs that had limited his effectiveness and availability.

The result: Colts 27, Broncos 24. Three months later, Denver overwhelmed Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

That’s the short version of why Irsay didn’t balk at signing Luck to a five-year extension that will pay his franchise cornerstone nearly $140 over the next six seasons.

He could have used Luck’s injury-plagued, error-filled fourth season against him in negotiations. The career-low 54.1 percent completion rate. The 12 interceptions, which tied for 12th-most in the league even though he missed nine games. The 2-5 record as a starter.

“We didn’t go there,” Irsay said, adding he considered Luck’s “total body of work.”

Instead, he kept defaulting to Nov. 8.

Manning was back in town.

The Broncos were 7-0 while the Colts were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, although the most recent setback was an encouraging 29-26 overtime loss at Carolina.

And it was Colts 27, Broncos 24.

“The Denver victory at home is something that stands out and makes us think of what could’ve been,” Irsay said. “I think, because we had made our change at offensive coordinator (from Pep Hamilton to Rod Chudzinski) and Andrew had gotten healthy for that game . . . we could’ve put up 30 at home.”

The game ended with Luck taking a victory knee at the Denver 1-yard line.

“Won a big game against the world champions,” Irsay said. “So we could obviously see what the Denver game was like.

“And, look, if he’s healthy, there’s no question in our minds that he’s going to return and do the things that he’s done.”

Against Denver and the NFL’s best defense, the Colts were at their best because Luck and virtually everyone else was at his best.

Luck completed 21-of-36 passes for 252 yards with two touchdowns and, most telling, no interceptions. He used his entire arsenal, completing passes to seven receivers. T.Y. Hilton and Griff Whalen each caught five passes, Coby Fleener had four.

The running game generated 120 yards against a Denver defense that would finish the season as the NFL’s stingiest against the run (83.6 yards per game). Frank Gore pounded away 28 times for 83 yards.

Luck added 34 yards on six carries, including a 4-yard scramble on the first play of the fourth quarter when he was hammered by a pair of Broncos at the Denver 8 that produced the lacerated kidney and abdominal injury.

The offensive line afforded Luck ample time. He was sacked once and hit 11 times while throwing. While he suffered the kidney injury on a scramble, he initially had enough time to find a receiver.

The defense stepped up. It limited the Manning-led Broncos to 95 total yards in the first half and 309 overall. It sacked Manning once and hit him another nine times. Safety Mike Adams and nickel corner Darius Butler notched interceptions.

It was a complementary, championship-caliber performance.

It was the type of game that brought a smile to coach Chuck Pagano’s face when he considered the possibilities with a healthy Luck, a Chudzinski-directed offense and a sounder supporting cast.

“I think we all saw a small glimpse in a short period of time,” he told Colts.com at the owners meetings. “It happened on a bye week. We played Denver, the game Andrew obviously got hurt in.

“I think we all saw a small sample size of what our offense is going to look like moving forward, beating that team and having the success that we did on that day and Andrew looking like Andrew.”

While Luck has battled turnovers during his career – 84 in 61 games, including the playoffs – the Colts didn’t turn the ball over against Denver’s attacking defense.

One stat to keep in mind moving forward: since Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts are 17-2 when they don’t turn the ball over.

Chudzinski was in his first game as offensive coordinator after the team fired Hamilton. He was somewhat hamstrung with his game plan considering the lack of time to install any of his concepts.

Chudzinski recently was asked if the Denver game is a reliable gauge as to what should be expected from his offense moving forward.

“How it plays out and the scheme and the Xs and Os from one week to another can always be different,” he said. “Again, if you can only win games in one way, at some point in this league you get shut down and have difficulties so you have to be able to have ways and different ways that you can win games.

“You have to be able to throw it when you have to throw it to win. You have to be able run it at times to be able to win and everything in between sorts itself out. The biggest thing is that we’re using our guys and trying to put them in the best position to succeed and that we can win games in different ways.”

But it all starts with Andrew Luck, and his ability to replicate Nov. 8, 2015 as often as possible.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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