Luck pushes Pats-Colts stakes higher

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a new wrinkle in the old rivalry, a freshly pressed crease in the Patriots-Colts tapestry that already has a texture of permanence to it.

His name is Andrew Luck, an exceedingly well-prepared young quarterback who has managed the unfathomable: seamlessly replacing his childhood hero Peyton Manning. Luck's uncommon confluence of skills (strong arm, excellent footwork, athletic knack for avoiding the rush, poise under pressure) has already translated into game-winning drives and the official anointment as The Next Big Thing.

Although his NFL career is in its infancy, Luck has confronted expectations of LeBron-esque proportions with the correct mix of humility, temerity and talent.

He comes to Foxborough on Sunday to meet Tom Brady for the very first time.

In some respects, Brady will be gazing at the reflection of an old friend.

Although Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck have different skill sets (few have ever dubbed Peyton "elusive"), Luck's pedigree aligns more closely with that of his predecessor in Indianapolis than of Brady. He's certainly no sixth-round draft choice who had to wait for Drew Bledsoe to shear a chest muscle to get his chance.

Like Manning, Luck is a No. 1 overall pick from a football family who excelled in a high-profile college football program.

The Lucks, like the Mannings, have been preparing for years for this.

"Part of the allure of sports is when all of sudden you have these new meteors that appear in the heavens and you get to follow them," observed Oliver Luck, Andrew's father. "Sometimes they are Halley's Comet and they keep coming back. Sometimes they flare out."

Those who endure become football icons, like Elway and Marino and Manning and Brady.

As a young boy raised in London and Frankfurt, Germany, while his father ran NFL Europe, Luck monitored the Colts and Patriots rivalry on grainy Armed Forces Network broadcasts. Though he rooted for Manning, he observed Brady's mechanics closely. Later, when Luck moved back to the States, he added the strongest attributes of Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger to his mental database.

The Tom Brady that he charted was a star, an MVP and multiple Super Bowl champion, a dashing figure in the both the society pages and the football annals.

Yet New England's franchise player has never forgotten that before he was the Next Big Thing, he was an anonymous fourth-string backup who couldn't even talk his way into a local watering hole.

Brady had to wait for his moment. In his rookie season, he spent countless nights alone at the team's facilities, long after practice ended, refining his foot speed, watching film, lifting weights. He'd often leave for dinner, then return for another session. Finally an irritated stadium worker called general manager Scott Pioli and asked, "Should we be letting this 22-year old kid in here at midnight?"

"That's what made Bill [Belichick] and I love Tommy so much," Pioli said. "He was just like us."

Brady threw just three passes in his rookie season. Bledsoe was a mainstay, and Tom Brady Sr. wondered where it would all lead.

"We used to arrive at the Patriots game three hours in advance to watch Tommy warm up," Brady Sr. confessed. "It was our only chance to see him throw."

Even after Brady's debut as a starter on Sept. 30, 2001, which resulted in a shocking 44-13 dismantling of the Colts and Manning, few were touting Brady as a quarterback with staying power.

"I remember after the game Galynn and I went to a bar to get a bite to eat," Tom Brady Sr. said. "We didn't have any Patriot garb on or anything. The people around us were saying, 'That Brady is lucky. He won't amount to anything.'

"It kind of grated on us. We turned to each other and said, 'We'll have to wait and see.'"

If Brady had an occasion to talk with Luck, he might share his own experiences as a quarterback whose rise to stardom occurred at warp speed. So often sudden fame is later accompanied by a precipitous fall. Both Brady and Manning managed to sidestep that fate.

"It's interesting," Oliver Luck said. "My wife and I were talking about that very topic. When we lived overseas I really enjoyed reading the tabloids. In this country we don't really have any, with the exception of the New York Daily News.

"In London they'd build their soccer stars up one day, then tear them down the next, build them up the day after that, then tear them down again.

"Every professional athlete should follow the tabloids for a couple of years to understand the modus operandi. You are either a hero or a goat.

"You get to appreciate that you are never as good as you are after a victory and never as bad after a loss. You've got to realize today that it's either an A or an F. There's no B's or C's anymore.

"I think Andrew understands that. I believe he's equipped to handle it."

Even the elite are no longer immune to the instant scrutiny. When the Patriots lost to Arizona at Foxborough earlier this season, there was actually some talk-radio backlash questioning whether Brady was still an elite quarterback.

That talk has dissipated. New England leads the NFL in scoring (33.2 ppg) and total yards (3,873). Brady is among the leaders in QB numbers. Defense, not offense, remains the Patriots' weak spot.

While we gleefully embrace the new blood in RGIII and Luck and Russell Wilson, the old mainstays like Brady continue to perform.

"They say it was an 'off game' against Buffalo, and still the team scored 37 points," said Tom Brady Sr. "We're leading the league in scoring but Tom isn't even a candidate for MVP.

"Of course, that's not important to him. He doesn't care about that stuff. He just wants to win."

Tom Brady Sr. enjoyed a bird's-eye view of Luck's prolific college career (Stanford is a mere 15 miles from the Bradys' California home), and predicts great things for the rookie.

"He's elusive, throws a great pass, and he's fleet of foot," observed Brady Sr. "He's smooth, too -- smooth like Montana, but I don't think Joe was as elusive or as fast. There's no reason to think he will be anything but awesome for years to come."

Oliver Luck is happy to return the compliment, father to father.

"Tom Brady has the two most important traits of a quarterback," he said. "He's incredibly accurate, even when he's throwing off balance, and he's absolutely unflappable. That's what separates the great ones from the others."

The game has changed since Brady was a rookie. These days, he lines up opposite defensive linemen who possess the speed of running backs. Brady Sr. said Montana once told him when he played there were four or five defenses to prepare for. That number has increased tenfold.

"Now more than ever, the quarterback has to be able to process information quickly and then translate it to skill guys," Brady Sr. said. "That cerebral skill set is so important, because you've got very big guys getting to the quarterback in a second and a half. Both Tom and Andrew have that."

Both fathers will be at Gillette Stadium on Sunday to watch their sons begin the Colts-Patriots rivalry anew. One has already punched his ticket to Canton, Ohio, while the other has begun compiling a portfolio that suggests he might end up there as well someday.

Andrew Luck has done and said all the right things in the days leading up to his meeting with Brady. He has expressed reverence, but not awe for his opponent.

Just another game for the Lucks?

Not entirely.

"I love it when Andrew plays against guys I've admired forever," confessed Oliver Luck.

"It's been pretty darn special to watch Tom turn into the elder statesman," said Tom Brady Sr. "To not only persevere, but to have great success."

There is a void without Manning in a Colts uniform, Tom Brady Sr. admits. It's different, strange.

But the new wrinkle presents new possibilities. The Colts versus Patriots, and the Rookie versus the Statesman.

Luck versus Brady.

Why not?