INDIANAPOLIS -- The Colts took possession with 9:46 remaining in their regular-season finale.
Andrew Luck might have handed the game ball to Chuck Pagano right then and there.
The rookie quarterback let the play clock run down, took 15 snaps, watched his team convert three third downs and forced the Texans to burn their last two timeouts.
Indianapolis arrived at the two-minute warning needing only to kneel out the clock, assuring a 28-16 win over Houston. And so Pagano, back after three months away for leukemia treatment, found offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and hugged the man who’d led the team while he was away.
“We have a 2:00 offense, we have a 4:00 offense, now we have a 9:00 offense,” Reggie Wayne said. “Andrew came in the huddle, he let it be known we need to shut the door on this drive. Guys just bit down on their mouthpieces and found ways to get it done."
“Being a defensive guy… it’s glorious, it unbelievable to watch, because you don’t have to go back out there,” Pagano said. “They just kept grinding it out, grinding it out.”
And so the Colts’ storybook regular season ended with their 11th win just a year after they were 2-14, fired their top people and hired replacements who gutted and restocked their roster.
"They believe, they have faith, they have trust and the love one another,” Pagano said with amazement.
The Houston Texans have still never won in Indianapolis. The Texans may have more talent than Indianapolis, but they do not head into the playoffs as a better team. Houston hasn’t had the same kind of struggle to rally around, and has lost a great degree of what the Colts spent Saturday night talking about: mojo.
“I doubt anybody’s lost confidence,” Texans running back Arian Foster said.
It’s what you say when you were 11-1 and finish 12-4. But there simply has to be an issue with psyche at some level for a few Texans that has the potential to linger into next week’s home game against sixth-seeded Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, the guys who wear horseshoes on their helmets spoke of their pride in putting forth a winning effort in a game which gained them nothing in terms of playoff positioning. As the No. 5 seed, they will travel to Baltimore to take on the No. 4 Ravens next weekend.
They signed up for a 16-game season, Pagano said, and they intended to play it out.
After the coin toss, a short video rolled showing highlight of the season and moments when the team rallied for its touchstone cause. Then the cameras showed Pagano on the sideline and the crowd exploded for him.
“It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all the cameras flashing when he walked out,” Luck said.
Houston scored 10 points in the third quarter to move ahead 16-14. But fortunes turned quickly after Shayne Graham’s third field goal, a 37-yarder.
Deji Karim took the ensuing kickoff 101 yards straight down the middle of the field for one score and Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 70-yard touchdown. Then cornerback Vontae Davis collected his second interception of Matt Schaub, this one in the Colts’ end zone, to set up the 9:46 of keep-away.
The Colts won a good share of games this season that the stats suggested should have gone the other way. They were outgained by the Texans, 352 net yards to 265. But Davis’ two takeaways were the game's only turnovers. The Colts were better on third down, were more effective in the red zone and played a cleaner game in terms of penalties.
Likely NFL defensive player of the year J.J. Watt got to Luck just once, and his half sack was washed away when the resulting fumble was changed to an incomplete pass on replay review.
The Colts sacked Schaub four times. One came from one-day Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney. The other three came from guys hardly anyone’s heard of: defensive end Lawrence Guy was playing in his ninth game with the team, defensive tackle Clifton Geathers was appearing in his eighth and linebacker Jamaal Westerman suited up for the fourth time.
Pagano took a long time to emerge for his postgame interview, and through the door leading to the locker room we heard a long-lasting wild rumpus. (See Robert Mathis dance and Pagano talk and accept a game ball, here.)
Pagano said he never reflected on the darkest days of his leukemia treatment, just getting lost in the game.
Wayne’s relationship with Pagano dates all the way back to his time at the University of Miami, when Pagano was part of the Hurricanes’ coaching staff.
The receiver credited his coach with holding tears back throughout the day, though he said the team was giving its coach a pass on it.
“He’s put the fight in this team,” Wayne said. “He makes us go out there, and whatever nick, bruises you have, it’s nothing, no comparison. Whenever you think you’re hurt, you’re not hurt. Our general, he was hurt.”
Maybe, down the road, football games will just be football games again for this team.
Whatever it has left this season isn’t going to be like that.
“To listen to a guy that beat leukemia in 13 weeks and then comes back to the sideline, is unreal,” said punter Pat McAfee. “It’s something like a movie. The speech he gave today, the highlight of it was basically, ‘Week-in and week-out, you get a chance to give people hope just like you did for me when I was fighting for my life…’”
“I think that was a big-time tear-jerker. In situations like this, we realize it’s much bigger than us. There are a lot of things going on that we can’t control, but we can help. It was really cool.”
In a discussion this week of whether Colts first-year general manager Ryan Grigson is executive of the year, we noted the team’s remarkable turnover. Sixty-eight percent of the current roster wasn’t here last year.
“Ryan Grigson had quite a task, he had to renovate a team,” McAfee said. “We refused to use the word rebuild. We used the term reload, Robert Mathis kind of termed that. He brought in a new group of faces, a lot of young guys, a whole new coaching staff, a whole new offense for a brand-new rookie [quarterback] so the guy would have nobody to turn to with questions, he would have to figure it out himself. A defense that’s come together around a guy from Canada making a bunch of plays in Jerrell Freeman. Get a trade from Miami who’s paid off huge in the long run [in Davis].
“We’re just a team of misfits that’s come together around one big cause which is our leader, giving us inspiration and hope that is much bigger than us.”