INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano put on his dancing shoes and savored every moment of Sundays postgame celebration.
He took his customary linebacker stance on the sideline, hands on bended knees. He signaled touchdowns when the Colts scored, patted Deji Karim on the helmet after a 101-yard kickoff return for a game-changing touchdown, and gestured for penalty flags to be thrown.
And after Indianapolis beat AFC South champion Houston 28-16, Pagano even tossed aside the stodgy image of an NFL coach and began jumping around with players, assistant coaches and even team owner Jim Irsay like he was a kid again.
There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of dancing, a lot of hugging going on and a lot of celebrating, an emotional Pagano said. Theres a lot to celebrate right now.
It started with Paganos return.
He took an indefinite leave Sept. 26 to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy for leukemia Sept. 26 and didnt make it back to the sideline until Sunday when the cancer was in complete remission.
But the party began much earlier.
When Pagano first walked onto the field, he waved to the fans and hugged his wife, Tina.
When fans gave him a standing ovation after a 1-minute video played on the stadiums two Jumbotrons just before kickoff, a choked-up Pagano held his tears in check. When he left the field, he hugged everybody in sight – assistant coaches, Colts players, even Texans players and coaches – before moving the postgame party to the locker room, where Irsay presented him with a game ball and they did a do-si-do together.
What a day, what a day, he said. We could go into what transpired out there over the last three hours and five, 10 minutes whatever, from a stats standpoint and big plays, penalties and run offense and run D, all of that stuff. But just down the road, I have watched all of this take place for the last 12 ball games.
Players had a different kind of welcome-back celebration planned.
Guys really did not want to lose in his first game back and heading into the playoffs, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck said. To get a win, I think means the world to him.
Luck, as usual, had a big hand in the victory. He was 14 of 28 for 191 yards with two more touchdowns and no interceptions.
He wasnt alone, though.
Karim swung the game with the kickoff return just seconds after the Texans took their only lead, and when Luck converted on third-and-23 with the 70-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter, the crowd was in a frenzy.
The Colts (11-5) will play at Baltimore in the wild-card round Sunday. The slumping Texans (12-4) have lost three of their last four and play host to Cincinnati on Saturday.
We had a great opportunity the last two weeks, but we wont feel sorry for ourselves, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said after giving Pagano a hug and whispering in his ear after the game. Well focus on keeping our confidence up, even if we have to play next week.
Indianapolis did everything it needed to Sunday.
The Colts prevented J.J. Watt from getting too close to Luck – or any closer to Michael Strahans NFL sacks record (22 1/2 ). Watt finished with 20 1/2 .
We didnt win, so I could care less about the record. Its about winning, Watt said.
Luck broke Peyton Mannings franchise record for completions by a rookie but fell 15 short of Sam Bradfords NFL mark. Luck also moved into third all-time among rookies with 22 TD passes. And Indianapolis completed the second greatest turnaround in league history – winning nine more games than it did in 2011.
Man, this has been a great year, a storybook ending, Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said. Lets keep it going. Hopefully we can continue to write this movie.
On a day the Texans mostly settled for field goals, Luck masterfully led the Colts to a 14-6 halftime lead.
Houston made it 14-13 when Arian Foster broke through a hole for a 13-yard TD run and saluted Pagano by tapping the Chuckstrong sign behind the end zone. Foster ran 16 times for 96 yards.
Grahams 37-yard field goal gave Houston the lead with 5:22 to go in the third quarter, but Karims long TD return set off a celebration that didnt end until after Pagano had done his dance.
Its like a dream come true again, Pagano said. Its the greatest feeling in the world to be down there.
Schaub finished 24 of 36 for 275 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.