Andrew Luck’s career comes full circle with playoffs at stake versus Titans

INDIANAPOLIS — There’s probably no better place, against no better team — and with the highest stakes — for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to complete what has been the best comeback by any player in the NFL this season:

Nashville, Tennessee, against the Titans — a team that has never beaten him — in a win-and-in game in the final week of the regular season.

That’s because it was in Week 3 of the 2015 season at the Titans that Luck’s rise in the NFL took a drastic turn and the progress the franchise had made his first three seasons came to a halt. It was during that game Luck injured his right shoulder, which started almost three seasons of injuries for the quarterback. He missed 26 of the following 45 games.

Everything can come full circle for Luck and the Colts if they beat the Titans in Week 17 (8:20 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC), because a victory will get Indianapolis back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season, which was the last time Luck was completely healthy prior to this season. A win also will make the Colts just the second team since the realignment in 2012 to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start.

“We’ve come a long way,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “We’ve come a long way as a team. These are the games we didn’t win early on. But again, just a credit to the leadership in the locker room and how they’ve handled their business and this constant belief. And then just making plays in the clutch in all phases.”

Not only were the playoffs on the Colts’ minds that Sunday afternoon in September more than three years ago, but they also had their sights on a deep run after reaching the AFC Championship Game the previous season.

But Luck’s body changed on a play that wasn’t supposed to happen, according to former Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, in the second quarter against the Titans.

Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey appeared to jump offside on a third-and-3 play with 7:14 left in the first half. Instead of snapping the ball to get a free play or having an offensive lineman get up and point at Casey, the Colts allowed the defensive lineman to get back onside. The Colts snapped the ball, and Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo sacked Luck, driving him hard into the ground.

“I had been crying forever that if they jump, we snap the ball,” said Hasselbeck, Luck’s backup that season. “I was livid because they jumped and we did nothing. We let them get back onsides, and it was a sack. That’s what I remember most about it. I remember, like, no one was listening to me … I was getting ready to give Andrew and everybody a hard time, like I told you so [about the sack]. It never had to happen. That’s sort of a tough thing to live with. Just an unnecessary play.”

Luck, his teammates, coaches and front-office staff were unaware how badly the quarterback was injured on that sack. It set off a string of injuries that included hurt ribs and a lacerated kidney. He tried to play through the injury by not practicing as much during the week and continuing to play after aggravating his shoulder while trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception in Week 2 of the 2016 season. He missed all of the 2017 season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

It was even more difficult to understand the extent of Luck’s shoulder injury that September 2015 day because he didn’t miss a snap against the Titans in that game.

Luck played the final two-plus quarters with an injured shoulder. He was 11-of-13 in the final quarter for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He threw both of his touchdowns in a 59-second span in the fourth quarter to help the Colts come from 13 points down in the victory.

“I didn’t know he hurt his shoulder in that game at the time,” Hasselbeck said. “He comes back and wins the game for us. I’m thinking nothing of any injury. I’m thinking like he’s great. He’s good to go. I think he had never lost to the Titans — he was in their heads. They can’t beat this guy. He was playing superhuman. That’s what I remember from it. But then, looking back, when he didn’t play for a while after that, there was a little, ‘Dang, this guy is really tough.’

“Now, he’s playing an important game there against the Titans, who if I’m not mistaken, he’s undefeated against [10-0]. At some point, it becomes mental, where [the Titans] start thinking they can’t beat this guy.”

Luck has thrown for 4,308 yards on a career-high 406 completions this season, including 36 TDs, and he is headed toward a career-high completion percentage (67.2 percent through 15 games) in his redemption season. He and the Colts need one more regular-season victory this weekend at Tennessee to make what already has been an impressive season an even better one, with them back in the playoffs.

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