Late fumble spoils Andrew Luck's impressive return as Colts lose

INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Luck is back, but it's too early to say that his comeback heroics are back.

Luck was 15 yards away from pulling off the 18th come-from-behind victory of his career when Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle fumbled with 46 seconds left in a 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The loss took away from the moment everybody had been waiting 20 months to happen.

The throws made during minicamp, snaps taken and hits Luck took in limited action in preseason were just an appetizer. It was all about how he would handle making the necessary throws while facing pressure throughout an entire game for the first time in 616 days -- not just a handful of series in the preseason.

Luck shook off throwing an interception on his first pass to go 39-of-52 for 319 yards and two touchdowns to further prove that there's no reason to be skeptical about the quarterback's surgically repaired right shoulder.

"I was very excited to play," Luck said. "Part of what I think I've been trying to do is to sort of have that same feeling when you're a 12-year-old playing football. A young kid. Because it is a game. We do play the game. We don't work. We play football. Certain things felt a little different."

Luck acknowledged that he was a little emotional as he sat at his locker before the game. He got emotional again when he ran through the tunnel after he was the last offensive starter announced. That's understandable when you consider that there were times during Luck's journey to recovery when he didn't know he would play football again.

"Overwhelming, I felt grateful and appreciative to be here," Luck said. "I was so excited to get to run on the field as a Colt and get to play with T.Y. [Hilton] and Jack and [Adam Vinatieri] and the new guys. It was fun. Then the game got going, and then it's one play at a time."

Luck couldn't have been put in a better situation to take his first snap in nearly two years than when cornerback Kenny Moore returned an Andy Dalton interception to the Bengals' 7-yard line. But Luck locked in on Doyle and threw an interception three plays later. Luck had 20 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone in 2016, which was his last full season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Colts entered the game short-handed because they were without starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who is responsible for protecting Luck's blindside. Colts coach Frank Reich didn't call many down-the-field plays. Luck's biggest play was a 26-yard touchdown to tight end Eric Ebron in the first half. That was Luck's first touchdown since the final minute of their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 1, 2017. Luck was sacked twice, and he had a lot of pressure in his face.

Luck and the Colts have said the quarterback has to do a better job of avoiding unnecessary hits to help him extend his playing career. The competitive Luck was not hearing any of that when he took off running to try to pick up a first down in the first half. Luck got the first down but also took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Bengals safety Shawn Williams. Luck gave a thumbs-up sign when he got up, and Williams was ejected for the hit.

In addition to the sacks, Luck took several hits, including a play on which Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap was called for roughing the passer in the third quarter.

"I planked and rolled off right away, and I tried to let the referee know I was not trying to be malicious and drive him through the ground because I know it's Andrew Luck after two years, so they're going to call it tight regardless," Dunlap said. "So I tried to do the next best thing. There was no other way for me to try to avoid him on the front side, so on the back side I tried to keep my weight from driving him into the ground, which is the terminology they used."

Reich's philosophy on offense is to not be predictable. That's what they followed through with, as Luck completed passes to nine players, with seven of them having receptions of at least 11 yards.

"It's only going to get better," receiver Chester Rogers said. "Andrew looked good. There's some stuff that he's not trusting himself with all the way. He told us that. But as the game went on he started to relax. Andrew looked good out there."

It appeared that Luck could be on his way to capping off a long recovery period that had him miss the entire 2017 season when the Colts started their drive at their 25-yard line and down by four points with 3 minutes, 57 seconds left in the game. Luck completed nine passes on the drive when Doyle fumbled and Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem recovered it and returned it 85 yards for the touchdown.

"No, no doubt in any of our minds that we were going to go down there and score," Doyle said. "And it didn't happen, I messed it up. I messed it up, and that stings. It sucks, and I'll be better for it. I'll improve and won't let it happen again."

ESPN's Katherine Terrell contributed to this report.