Andrew Luck's impressive return dampened by Colts loss, but there's reason for optimism
Late fumble costs Colts a victory, but Luck showed a return to form after two years away
The Andrew Luck comeback story was a remarkable success. It won't show up in the final score – the game was much closer than it would indicate – and it isn't even fully reflected in the box score, although the quarterback did post impressive stats.
But it was there in his powerful throws, his pinpoint touch, his athleticism and verve. It was there in the thumping he absorbed – several of them quite dirty from a Bengals defense notorious for such actions – and the way he bounced back and thrived from them all. It was in the way he shook off a game-opening interception and then began methodically marching a suspect Colts team up and down the field.
It was there in the instant hope that his mere presence provided to a franchise that has been floundering since his throwing shoulder initially gave way. It was there in his leadership and courage in the pocket. It was, frankly, everywhere. And had tight end Jack Doyle managed to hold onto Luck's final completed pass of the day – on an afternoon when he threw a staggering 53 times – it very well would have showed up in a game-winning drive … Because that's what he was about to accomplish before Doyle's fumble was returned for a game-clinching touchdown in the Bengals' 34-23 victory.
But make no mistake, after two lost years, Luck is back. In a big way. He had a Colts team with a severe talent imbalance in this football game from the very start. He ended up 39-for-53 for 319 yards, two touchdowns, and that initial interception I mentioned, when a combination of rust and jitters and pure adrenaline would have gotten to anyone. Luck had TY Hilton looking like a game-breaker again and he overcame a janky offensive line and a total lack of a run game (rookie Jordan Wilkens led Indianapolis with 40 yards on the ground on 2.9 per carry).
After starting the game with that pick, he went on to go 20-for-24 for 170 yards with a touchdown the rest of the first half. It was nothing short of a quarterbacking tour de force. Was it wasted? Sure, yeah, to some degree I suppose so. But had Doyle kept that football, anyone watching that game had to be of the belief that the Colts were well in position to at least attempt a game-winning field goal, if Luck didn't manage to take them all the way to the end zone. His touchdown pass to Eric Ebron was a thing of absolute beauty, and this Colts team seemed to suddenly believe in itself again with No. 12 back at the helm.
It's likely to be a long season for the rebuilding Colts, even if Luck maintains this kind of form (and I wouldn't bet against it). But this isn't really about 2018. This roster is at least one more offseason away from being anywhere close to a contender, but Luck will keep them in some games they'd otherwise lose easily and he will outright win a few for them, too. The future is instantly much brighter. And Luck will only get better.
Mixed results from players coming back from injury
Some of the NFLs other comeback stories were not as bright. JJ Watt finally started getting to Tom Brady a little bit in the second half, but he looks stiff and cumbersome to me. All the issues with his back would mount on anyone and on a day when some thought this might be a mismatch for a questionable Pats line and a 41-year old quarterback, it was anything but. No one touched Brady until deep in the third quarter. It bears monitoring. Its going to a tough road back for Deshaun Watson, too. Even Brady struggled through the first half of his first season back from an ACL tear, and Watson looked pensive and unsure Sunday. His internal clock was off, he was no longer the most explosive guy on the field. It's going to take time before he is stepping up and firing through every throw again.
Dalvin Cook, on the other hand, was downright freakish at times. He was nimble and spry and ran away from people. The overall numbers were not great against what seems like a much improved 49ers front (DeForest Buckner is an absolute beast), but he had enough splash plays to get my attention. And Odell Beckham, Jr. looked better than them all. He was constantly open against what many consider the best secondary in the league. The Jags couldn't cover him; problem is Eli Manning still isn't accurate or trustworthy and after opening the game 11-for-11 he went on a 7-for-18 rut that including a loss-clinching pick six.
Beckham was targeted 15 times, more than twice that of any teammate, and he caught 11 of them, with Manning missing him badly four other times. Rarely was he hit in stride in the hands. Manning was 11-for-15 for 111 yards throwing to OBJ, and 12-for-22 for 113 yards with a pick going to everybody else. Saquon Barkley looks the part, but I remain a staunch skeptic as to Eli being able to do so anymore.
Around the league
I predicted the Bills would be the final team to get a win this season – it could go well into the second half – and to finish with the first-overall pick. And they looked every bit of that outfit in Week 1. Brutal. No sense playing Nathan Peterman anymore after he failed to get through a third NFL start. It is going to be very tough for Josh Allen with this cast around him, like super tough, but Peterman is not viable. He played a half of football without registering a first down and had 17 yards passing in 30 minutes, while the QB on the other sideline, Joe Flacco, sliced the Bills for 23 completions in the first half alone. Here's an idea: go sign Colin Kaepernick … The Browns defense is going to be nasty. Sure, the terrible weather had something to do with the six turnovers forced on Sunday, but that unit played more than well enough to win the game. … Chalk up round one to Le'Veon Bell. James Connor gained 100 yards and performed well, but his fumble also changed the game and played a bit part in them blowing a big lead and settling for a tie … People keep paying Sam Bradford $20M a year to play quarterback. What a country … Expect to see higher sack totals from the Pats this season. ... The Bengals had best get the memo that you can't slam quarterbacks to the turf like you used to be able to do and get away with it. They, not surprisingly, had the first ejection of the season on a disgusting blow to Luck's head, and the flags kept coming for dirty hits. Seems to be in the DNA. When Vontaze Burfict comes back one suspects it only gets worse. The culture is changing around the NFL, but no so much with the Bengals. … Consider me among those less than convinced Ryan Fitzpatrick loses that Bucs starting job to Jameis Winston when the quarterback's suspension ends. He won't play as well as he did Sunday each of the next few weeks but anything close to this kind of performance and Winston ends up sitting a while longer, I bet. … Will Dissley is going to be a fantasy waiver wire stud this week. The little-thought-of tight end opened his NFL career with three catches for 105 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. Looks like he might be quite the find, while the Seahawks better keep looking for a kicker. Sebastian Janikowski wasn't good in the preseason and struggled Sunday, too. That's an ongoing concern.
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