After overcoming a 28-point second-half deficit and continuing on to an improbable 45-44 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card game, quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts appear on one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. Luck survived three interceptions to throw for 443 yards and four touchdowns, and rush seven times for 45 vital yards. He scored the touchdown that drew the Colts within three points in the fourth quarter on a heads-up-five-yard fumble recovery and return, and he put Indianapolis into the lead for the first time in the game with a 64-yard pass to a wide-open T.J. Hilton with 4:21 remaining. NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “While America has been captivated by the ‘revolutionary’ likes of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3, Andrew Luck has quietly emerged as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Not best young quarterbacks; best quarterbacks, period. Luck’s -numbers—23 TDs in each of his two years, 81.5 passer -rating—aren’t staggering. But his 10 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT (including that gem against the Chiefs) and his 23 victories are.” (Page 23)
In 2012 the Colts selected Luck with the first pick in the draft to replace an injured Peyton Manning. Everyone knew Luck was an elite college QB, but that has fooled people before. Take Matt Leinart, for example. He won the Heisman and a national championship at USC. Or take Tim Tebow. He, too, won the Heisman and two championships at Florida. Neither did anything noteworthy at quarterback in the NFL and both are currently out of the league. So with Manning off to Denver and lingering doubt about whether drafting Luck was a sound investment, fans in Indianapolis waited with baited breath to see if Luck would be a boom or a bust.
As it turns out, boom might be an understatement. Writes Benoit, “Luck is at the heart of the Colts’ success. The NFL loves pocket passers; the 24-year-old is that and more. Not only can he cycle through manifold progressions to find receivers, but he can also work guys open with improvisation. Much like Ben Roethlisberger, Luck extends plays with strength and athleticism. While Roethlisberger flourishes as things break down, Luck flourishes by keeping things together. He has a gift for extending a play without compromising its structure. Even under heat, he keeps his eyes downfield and relies on sharp mechanics to make accurate throws from untenable positions.” (Page 23) Now the Colts are off to New England for a showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots, where they hope to have more than just a little bit of Luck. | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
To see a gallery of photos of the NFL’s biggest comebacks by franchise go to:
Appearing on a regional cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who led his team to an epic double overtime comeback victory against the favored Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning in last Saturday’s AFC Divisional showdown. This is the 2nd time Flacco has appeared on the cover. He first appeared on the cover on Sept. 19, 2011.
Senior writer Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) writes that it’s time to make room for Flacco in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Since entering the NFL in 2008, Flacco at 61-30, is the winningest quarterback in the league and also the only passer in history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. Flacco and the Ravens advance to play in their second straight AFC title game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
“Will people finally buy how good this guy is?” asks coach John Harbaugh. “I mean, we love him (PAGE 49).”
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for more yards—181—than any other quarterback in any NFL game, threw for another 261 and finished with four TDs in a 45-31 victory over Green Bay in the NFC Divisional playoff last Saturday, is on the cover of the Jan. 21, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday. This is the first time Kaepernick has appeared on the cover, and the first time a 49er was featured on the cover since Jan. 23, 2012.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Austin Murphy (@si_austinmurphy) says that after one of the most electrifying playoff debuts in NFL History, Kaepernick has silenced critics (the college coaches who didn’t find him worthy of a scholarship; the NFL teams who picked five quarterbacks before him in the ’11 draft; and the fans who preferred Alex Smith).
“I had a lot to prove,” Kaepernick shouted on the field after the game. “A lot of people doubted me and my ability to lead this team (PAGE 41).”
Perhaps it was fate that the 49er quarterback led his team to a win over the Packers. Kaepernick’s mother Theresa told Murphy about a letter she found that Colin wrote to himself as a fourth grader. It said in part: I hope I go to a good college in football, then go to the pros and play on the niners or the packers even if they aren’t good in seven years (PAGE 39).
While Peyton Manning’s arrival may be the most credited reason for Denver’s ascent to the top of the AFC this season, the maturation of Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller from one-trick pony to a complete linebacker may be just as significant writes senior writer Jim Trotter in this week’s issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. After earning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 thanks in part to his 11 ½ sacks, Miller has taken his game to the next level this season, having recorded 18 ½ sacks, six forced fumbles and his first career NFL interception (which he returned for a TD). While initially being known just as a dominant pass rusher, Miller now wants to be considered amongst the best all around defenders in the league. “I’m a true linebacker. I believe that in my heart,” says Miller. “I want to be a dominant run stopper. I want guys to say when they see 58, they’ve got to go to the other side.”
Miller grew up in East Texas in a home where his parents instilled values such as hard work, respect and accountability. His father once told him, “You have to be your biggest critic.” At only 23 years old, he has certainly taken his dad’s advice to heart. “It’s not the amount of success you’ve had,” says Miller, “it’s the respect you get in the locker room as a leader, as The Guy. The organization brought me in to be that guy, and I feel like I’ve taken steps in that direction. But I still have a long way to go (page 58).”
After 46 years in the National Football League, the Atlanta Falcons remain one of 14 teams that have yet to hold the Vince Lombardi trophy and call themselves Super Bowl champions. To be a fan of the Falcons is to accept the inevitable feeling of complete and utter disappointment. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Thomas Lake, a lifelong Falcon fan, describes how his fondest memories of the Falcons are fogged with the eerie understanding that even the most outstanding victories can be followed by season-halting losses. Whether it was the debacle that was their first Super Bowl appearance in 1999, the complicated love-hate relationship and bitter divorce with Michael Vick, or last year’s playoff shutout loss to the Giants, Falcons fans have learned to live with heartbreak. But as the Falcons gear up for this year’s playoffs, Thomas and his brother, Red, stand together amongst a sea of red and black waiting for their turn to come. Could this be their year? History says no, but their eternal optimism and devotion is telling them yes (page 66).