Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne keep Colts on improbable playoff path

When March 13, 2012 rolled around and NFL free agency began, Reggie Wayne could have played the market, checked out what kind of deals were out there. He was, after all, coming off eight straight seasons with at least 70-plus receptions and seven of eight with 1,000 yards receiving — 2011 being a “down year” at 75 catches and 960 yards on a miserable Colts team with massive quarterback issues.

Wayne could have followed Peyton Manning to Denver. Or signed with a receiver-needy team like the Ravens. Heck, he could have taken some extra money and landed with a desperate, underachieving franchise just looking for some star power.

Instead, he re-signed with the Colts … then cautioned everyone against writing off his longtime team.

“It’s not set in stone that we’re going to (struggle),” Wayne said after deciding to stick in Indianapolis. “Who knows — we might shock the world.
“This time next year, you might be writing that these Colts are some bad boys.”

Eight months after Wayne’s comments, and about seven after the Colts drafted Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, the veteran wide receiver is starting to look like Nostradamus.

Thursday night, in front of a scattered and apathetic crowd in Jacksonville, the Colts won their fourth straight game and sixth of the season, 27-10. That’s already four more victories than they had all of last season — and three more than they had during Peyton Manning’s rookie year of 1998, if you’re keeping track of such things.

With seven games left on their schedule, the Colts have a solid grasp on an AFC wild-card spot. And considering that two of their remaining contests will be against AFC South-leading Houston, it might be time to raise the bar.

“In the locker room, we have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” Luck said on the NFL Network set after the game. “We prepare to win football games. It’s great to be where we are; we also realize that it’s on the right path, but it’s nowhere near the end goal.”

The Luck-Wayne combo set the tone Thursday night, as it has for much of the season.

Luck threw eight passes in the first quarter against Jacksonville, seven of them in Wayne’s direction — five for completions. The Colts’ rookie QB then opened the second quarter by finding Wayne again, this time for a 21-yard gain to the Jaguars’ 8. Two plays later, Luck ran one in for a touchdown to put Indianapolis ahead 10-0. Luck scored again before halftime, extending the Colts’ lead to 17.

Jacksonville briefly showed some life, when backup QB Chad Henne hit Cecil Shorts on a fourth-quarter TD pass, pulling the home team within 14.

Facing a 3rd-and-3 on the ensuing possession, Luck looked Wayne’s direction again. The 16-yard gain that resulted? Mere child’s play.

From there, the Colts embarked on a time-draining drive that ended any ill-founded hope the Jaguars had of mounting a comeback.

“He’s come in and done an outstanding job — I’m just glad to be on his side,” said Wayne of Luck. “I wouldn’t compare him to (Peyton). I want him to get his own legacy, I want to help him. Just keep winning games with him, man.”

Luck returned the praise.

“Reggie’s been a great leader for this team and a great leader for the young guys on this team,” Luck said. “He’s not going to sit down and lecture us on what to do, but he leads by example incredibly well.”

Somehow, Jacksonville handed the Colts their lone home loss thus far back in Week 3. But seeing how far Indianapolis has come in such a short time has to be a punch to the gut for the Jaguars. While they muddle through a second straight frustrating year with Blaine Gabbert under center, the Colts appear to have found a clear franchise quarterback in Luck — not to mention the potential 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year and a fringe MVP candidate.

Earlier this week, a large group of Colts players shaved their heads in a show of solidarity for head coach Chuck Pagano, away from his post for weeks as he fights cancer. In Pagano’s absence the Colts have adopted the motto “Chuckstrong”, and they just keep flexing their muscles.

They did so Thursday, on a short week after a hard-fought win over Miami, despite the absences of linebacker Robert Mathis and cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis.

A perfect performance, it was not — Luck turned it over twice, and only a personal foul penalty prevented a third miscue. The Colts’ defense bedeviled the moribund Jacksonville offense, though, giving Luck and company all the help they needed.

Another win secured. Another step toward a stunning and improbable playoff berth taken.

“I came in and talked to (Pagano, after he was hired), and he told me to take a leap of faith,” Wayne said. “That’s why I’m here today.”

So far, that faith has been rewarded.

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