Step by step, Andrew Luck has climbed into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
In each of his three seasons, he and the Indianapolis Colts got one game closer to the Super Bowl. Now he can reach that destination if he beats Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday night.
"I want to beat the best," Luck said. "There's a competitive spirit in all of this: 'Hey, the harder it is, the better. Let's go try and make it happen.' "
If the Colts (13-5) upset the Patriots (13-4), Luck will have accomplished a difficult feat: beating Peyton Manning and Brady in consecutive games on the way to the Super Bowl.
But a win against the 37-year-old Brady, 12 years his senior, won't be a major measuring stick for Luck's progress.
"That's not a benchmark," he said. "He's a great role model for any quarterback at any level playing the position, but it's a team game. To me, it's as simple as that."
Luck has piled up impressive statistics since being drafted with the first pick out of Stanford in 2012.
This season, he led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes and surpassed Manning's single-season franchise high with 4,761 yards passing. He's also the only player to throw for at least 250 yards in each of his first five playoff games.
In his three seasons, the Colts lost in the wild-card round, then reached the division round and now are playing for the AFC title after Luck threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-13 divisional round win over Denver and Manning.
"He's just stayed with the process," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "Right now he probably feels as good as he's ever felt."
And that's not good for the Patriots.
"He was pretty good when he came in and he's even better now," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "He's got a lot of strengths, no weaknesses."
Sounds like Brady.
The 15-year veteran will play in his ninth AFC championship game and fourth straight, but the Patriots lost two of the previous three. In last Saturday's 35-31 divisional win over the Baltimore Ravens, Brady led the Patriots back from two 14-point deficits. His three touchdown passes gave him 46 for his career, breaking Joe Montana's record of 45 in the postseason.
"We've shown a lot of improvement and it all leads to this moment," Brady said, "so we've got to be at our best."
Things to watch for as two of the NFL's highest-scoring teams meet:
CATCHING ON: When they drop back, Luck and Brady have plenty of reliable receivers to choose from.
Luck connected with eight against Denver. And one who didn't catch a pass, Reggie Wayne, needs 36 yards receiving to move past Cliff Branch for No. 3 in NFL postseason history.
"One of the things that I believe has been a reason for our success is the different playmakers that we have and the way that the ball is being spread around," Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said.
Brady completed at least four passes to six different receivers against Baltimore, including one touchdown each to Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell, who caught a winning 23-yarder with just over five minutes left.
PATRIOTS RUSHING: New England used a powerful ground attack in its last two games against Indianapolis. LeGarrette Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-22 divisional win last year, and Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-20 win Nov. 16. But the Patriots rushed only 13 times for 14 yards against the Ravens, and three of them were kneel-downs by Brady in the last two minutes.
"We chose not to run the ball more than anything else," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "It wasn't like we ran it 20 times and had 35 yards."
BOOM TOWN: The last time the teams met, Colts RB Daniel "Boom" Herron played a season-low one snap. He got his first career start in the next game and has become a dual threat. After rushing for just 74 yards and catching two passes in the first 10 games, he's had 396 yards rushing and 37 receptions. In his two playoff games, he's run for 119 yards and two touchdowns and caught 18 of 19 passes thrown his way.
"I love it," he said of his postseason performances. "That's what you're here for and that's what I've dreamed about since I've been playing football."
FOR THE RECORD: Brady needs 10 yards passing for 6,801 in his postseason career, breaking Manning's record. One more postseason win will give Belichick his 21st as a coach, snapping a tie with Tom Landry for the most in NFL history. Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri, who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and has one ring with the Colts, will break Jerry Rice's mark for most postseason games with his 30th. He also can set a record with his 14th consecutive postseason game with a field goal, breaking a tie with Tony Fritsch.
CHANGING PLAYERS: Both teams have players in bigger roles than in the regular-season matchup. The Colts are getting greater production from rookie receiver Donte Moncrief, and the offensive line has three different starters. Defensive tackle Arthur Jones is back after missing the first meeting with an ankle injury and kick returner Josh Cribbs joined the team two days after the first game.
For the Patriots, defensive end Chandler Jones, Arthur's younger brother, missed it with a hip injury, while Blount joined the Patriots the following week after being cut by Pittsburgh.