Colts’ late playoff push requires the very best from Andrew Luck

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Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 5, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s that time of the year in the NFL.

It’s when the early-season jockeying for position gives way to making a serious push for the postseason.

It’s when a team’s driving force – nine times out of 10, that’s the quarterback — takes firm grasp of the wheel.

This is why owner Jim Irsay signed off on the extension in June that will pay Andrew Luck nearly $140 million over the next six seasons.

If the Indianapolis Colts are going to make something out of what has been a wildly erratic and heretofore frustrating season, Luck has to be on top of his game beginning with Sunday’s rematch with the Houston Texans as Lucas Oil Stadium.

Yes, a defense that lacks playmakers and likely will be without four starters – Robert Mathis (biceps), Clayton Geathers (neck), Kendall Langford (on IR with a knee) and D’Qwell Jackson (suspended) – must come up with an occasional stop.

Yes, special teams must continue to hold up its end, and Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri have 11-game resumes that are worthy of Pro Bowl inclusion.

But despite the talk of this being a team venture and all 53 players must contribute and other similar blather, let’s not kid ourselves. If the Colts are to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98, it’ll be because Luck carried them through December.

Fair or not, the best player must continue making plays that make a difference, and avoiding the mistakes a team with too many roster flaws is unable to overcome.

That’s been the case as the Colts have turned the AFC South into a three-team pileup at 6-6 by winning three of their last four. The only loss, to Pittsburgh, came without Luck, who still was in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Consider the efficiency of Luck and the offense in the three wins over Green Bay, Tennessee and the New York Jets:

  • Luck has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 799 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions and a 104.4 rating. He’s averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, 13.3 yards per completion.
  • Luck is coming off a 41-10 demolition of the Jets: 278 yards, four TDs, a career best 147.6 passer rating. He missed on just 6 of 28 passes, and two were drops.
  • The Colts set the early tone in each, scoring 14 first-quarter points. They remained aggressive and efficient throughout. They’ve averaged 32 points in the three wins.
  • The offense has ramped up its game in two critical areas. It has scored touchdowns on 9-of-13 red-zone opportunities – two of the exceptions were Jack Doyle’s fumble at the goal line and turning the ball over on downs late against the Jets – and converted 48.7 percent (19-of-39) on third downs.
  • The offense has quit getting in its own way. After drawing an inordinate number of false start and holding penalties early in the season, it has been flagged just four times in the last three wins.

Per usual, Luck was in an inclusive mode when discussing the offense’s recent successes.

“It’s a fun group to play with,’’ he said, quickly rattling off the name of every wide receiver on the active roster. “ . . . all those guys, the tight ends, the running backs, the offensive line. It’s a fun group to play with and winning is fun.

“At the end of the day, it’s fun to win, it’s fun to go out and practice and preparing to win.’’

At the end of the day, it’s about Luck being up to the challenge over what promises to be a daunting December.

“This is a quarterback-driven league,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “When you have a guy like Andrew, it gives you a chance and gives you an opportunity.

“The games this time of year all come down to third down. They come down to red zones. They come down to 2 minutes. That’s when you see the best quarterbacks excel and, obviously, Andrew is one of those top guys in the league and has done real well in those areas.

“It’s nice to have him.’’

The reason for the recent uptick by the offense is a combination of everyone getting comfortable with Chudzinski’s scheme that was installed in April, and players regaining their health.

“I’m a big believer in getting out and practicing,’’ Chudzinski said. “We’ve been able to do that the last few weeks. We’ve gotten guys back. They’re back in the groove of things and feeling more comfortable and confident. You have to work through the injuries.’’

Luck’s concussion aside, the Colts at varying times this season have been without Donte Moncrief for five games, Dwayne Allen for two and Phillip Dorsett for one. T.Y. Hilton has played through back, hip and knee injuries.

“The more that everybody’s on the same page . . . really a new system being put in in the springtime, this is the part of the season you’d expect to really start seeing the things oiled up a little bit better,’’ Chudzinski said. “We’ve gotten that.’’

And the timing couldn’t be better. It’s December and Andrew Luck seems to be on his game.

“I think when 12 is playing, it’s a big difference,’’ running back Frank Gore said. “Everybody is up and everybody is playing together as one. He gets us to play hard, talking to us in the huddle and helping us. Even when he calls the play it’s different.

“I am happy about the situation we are in with Sunday playing a great Texans team who is going to come in and play hard. We are just going to get better and try to do whatever it takes to get a win.’’

Most importantly, that’s follow Andrew Luck’s lead.

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