FOXBORO (AP) — The bye week is over.
Now the New England Patriots can focus on a major challenge.
How can they stop Andrew Luck?
The quarterback who brought Indianapolis back from a 28-point, third-quarter deficit to a 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC wild-card game Saturday will lead the Colts into Gillette Stadium for a divisional-round game Saturday night.
“There’s no question he’s a complete football player and one of the top quarterbacks in this league already,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Sunday.
“He has a great career in front of him, but I think he’s already established himself as a very poised and talented player that can do a lot of things to beat you.”
The second-seeded Patriots (12-4) would have faced third-seeded Cincinnati had the Bengals won Sunday. But Cincinnati lost to the sixth-seeded San Diego Chargers 27-10. So the fourth-seeded Colts (12-5) will play in Foxboro for the second straight season.
Last season, in Luck’s 10th game as a pro, he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in a 59-24 loss. He had his fourth worst passer rating of that season.
But Luck has more experience now and an impressive playoff win on his record. And his teammates kept fighting despite their huge deficit against Kansas City.
“They had a couple losses that they bounced right back from with big wins the following week,” Belichick said of the Colts. “I think they’ve shown a lot of mental toughness. (Saturday’s) game was about as good as it gets. To be that far behind in the third quarter, it didn’t look too good for them, and all (of) the sudden in a hurry you could feel them coming back, or at least I could.”
The Patriots’ secondary has been hobbled by injuries. Two starters, safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, missed the 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills that ended the regular season. And cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington have been playing hurt.
But the bye week gave them time to heal and a better chance to stop Luck. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 443 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions against the Chiefs. His 64-yard scoring pass to T.Y. Hilton with 4:21 left capped the comeback. Hilton’s 13 catches for 224 yards broke franchise playoff records.
“He’s, as we saw, a go-to guy,” Belichick said of Hilton. “He had a couple hundred yards yesterday, but he’s shown up all year. He’s a big key to it, but Luck has done a good job spreading the ball around. He’s made some key throws to a lot of guys.”
Saturday’s game will be the fourth in the playoffs between the teams. In the most recent meeting, the Colts made another impressive comeback. With Peyton Manning at quarterback seven years ago, they won the AFC championship game 38-34 after trailing the Patriots 21-6 at halftime.
But that game was in Indianapolis.
Saturday’s contest will be in Foxboro, where the Patriots are 8-0 this season but lost last year’s AFC title game to the Baltimore Ravens, 28-13.
New England goes into Saturday’s game with five wins in six games. Indianapolis has won its past four.
“For the most part this year, they’ve played mistake-free and have an explosive, well-balanced attack,” Belichick said. “Obviously, Luck has done a great job and they have a tremendous passing game, but their balance, their running game, their offensive line, production out of their tight ends, has been solid, too.”
And Belichick is not surprised at Luck’s improvement this season.
“I don’t think anything is that surprising,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “I think everybody saw him as a very talented player coming into this league. He’s done all the things that I think he has the talent to do.”
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