Tribune Star Correspondent
Who woulda thunk it?
Just a year removed from a disastrous 2-14 season and nine months since the decision was made to retool a veteran-laden roster and get younger in a hurry, the Indianapolis Colts completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in National Football League history Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With nothing to play for in terms of post-season positioning -- Indianapolis was already locked in as the No. 5 seed and play at AFC North champion Baltimore next weekend -- the Colts went with their starters the entire way en route to a stunning 28-16 win over defending and current AFC South champion Houston.
The Texans, who were playing for the No. 1 seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs, couldn't withstand the barrage of big plays put forth by a determined and motivated Indianapolis squad. With head coach Chuck Pagano returning to the sidelines after missing the previous 12 games as he battled leukemia, the fired-up Colts pulled out all the stops to finish the regular season with an 11-5 record.
"What a day. What a day," a teary-eyed Pagano said afterward. "Thank you all for giving me all your support, your thoughts, your prayers. This [win] meant the world to me. We can go into what transpired out there [during the game] over the last three hours and five,10 minutes, whatever, from a stats standpoint and big plays and penalties and run offense and run defense and all that stuff.
"I'’ve been watching all this take place for the last 12 ball games. And as you guys know, when I came back, I told them there was never a doubt when I was faced with what I was faced with once I was told because I had no choice. I got family to take care of, I’ve got a wife and daughters and grandchildren and other people counting on me to be there so really I had no choice in the matter. It’s kind of been a mantra from day one with this club. They refuse to live in circumstance. They have lived in vision. They believe. They have faith. They have trust. And they love one another."
The Colts' first-year coach came away from Sunday's game with Houston even more impressed by the resolve shown by his players this season and against the Texans.
"What they’ve done over the course of the first 12 ball games, to watch them today go out there and do what they did with nothing to gain. They didn’t have anything to gain today. [The media] reminded me of that on several occasions. But that’s not how this group rolls. That’s not their mind set," Pagano voiced.
"At the beginning of the year, we said we signed up for a 16-game season and to go out there and watch those guys play the way they played and you get veteran leadership from Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Cory Redding, [Antoine] Bethea, and Adam Vinatieri. I’m leaving out a bunch of guys. You can go on and on and on. They refused. They refused to let anybody write their story of what they could and could not do."
Quarterback Andrew Luck was one of several Indianapolis rookies who stepped up when it counted the most in the win over Houston. Luck completed 14-of-28 passes for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns. More importantly, he did not turn the ball over with an interception or a fumble.
A potential fumble deep in Colts territory was overturned on the first play of the second quarter when game officials ruled incomplete pass instead. Luck had been sandwiched by Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and weak side linebacker Connor Barwin as he tried to make a play downfield, forcing the ball out. A potential Texans' recovery was averted and Indianapolis retained possession of the ball.
The Colts had taken a 14-6 lead into the locker room at halftime on a 1-yard pass from Luck to rookie tight end Coby Fleener and a 1-yard run by rookie running back Vick Ballard. Houston was limited to a pair of Shayne Graham field goals, hitting from 51 and 37 yards out.
Arian Foster's 13-yard run up the middle on the Texans' opening drive of the third quarter narrowed the margin to 14-13. A 37-yard field goal from Graham with 5:22 remaining in the third quarter gave Houston its only lead of the day at 16-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, former Southern Illinois running back Deji Karim gave the Colts a desperately needed lift, taking Graham's kickoff back 101 yards for the eventual go-ahead touchdown. Karim has sparkled as a kickoff returner since rejoining the team on Dec. 11.
The return was the first by an Indianapolis player since former linebacker Tyjuan Hagler went 41 yards for a TD against Jacksonville on Dec. 19, 2010. It was also the longest kickoff return for a touchdown by an Indianapolis player and the fourth longest in franchise history.
Rookie wide receiver T.Y. Hilton closed out scoring for the Colts, hauling in a 70-yard TD pass from Luck with 11:27 left in the game. It was Hilton's seventh receiving touchdown of the season and a league-leading fifth coming on throws that were more than 20 yards downfield.
What made the play stand out was the fact that Indianapolis was facing a 3rd-and-23 situation after consecutive runs by Ballard netted a loss of three yards and a holding penalty on offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo nullified a 24-yard pass play to wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
Houston had one more opportunity to cut into the Colts' lead, but Indianapolis' defense held firm. The Texans managed to picked up a pair of first downs on throws from quarterback Matt Schaub to wide receiver Kevin Walter (15 yards) and Foster (18 yards).
Schaub's fifth pass attempt of the drive was overthrown to wide receiver Andre Johnson and intercepted by cornerback Vontae Davis, his second of the game and third in the past two weeks.
The Colts got the ball back with 9:46 remaining in the game and were able to run the clock out. Ballard was the workhorse on Indianapolis' final possession, picking up 27 yards on seven carries. He ended the day with a team-high 78 yards in 27 carries and a TD.
Hilton caught four passes for 111 yards and a touchdown while Wayne added four receptions for 40 yards. Cornerback Cassius Vaughn and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman led the way for Indianapolis defensively, each with 10 total tackles.
Schaub connected on 24-of-36 passes for 275 yards but was held without a touchdown. Foster was held under the 100-yard mark (96 yards in 16 carries and a TD) two weeks after he gained 165 yards against Indianapolis.
Johnson, meanwhile, had a big day, hauling in a game-high 12 passes for 141 yards but was also kept out of the end zone. It was Johnson's 18th career game with 10 or more receptions.
Perhaps the most impressive statistics, however, was the job done on Watt, who had been a one-man defensive wrecking machine against Indianapolis two weeks ago with 10 tackles, three sacks and six tackles for loss. He ended Sunday's game with four total tackles, four tackles for loss and a pass broken up.
"This team never lost two games in a row. They’d have a bad moment and come right back and win four in a row, win three in a row. We talked about a long time ago. We asked guys what your legacy is going to be. What do you want them to say about you and what do you want them to say about this team 10 or 15 or 20 years from now? We’re still writing it. We’re still writing our story because the journey continues," Pagano said.
"They’ve done such an unbelievable job that they got us in the playoffs and we’ve got another ball game obviously to look for. I think the sky’s the limit when you look at what they just did to close [Sunday's game] out. Take nothing away from the Texans. They are a great football team and a class organization. They’ve got a great head football staff and great assistants and owners and on down the line and I take nothing away from them. They’ve had a great season. But to close this thing out the way they closed it out, come back after a slow start in the second half and then Deji [Karim] sees an opening and takes it to the house, what a spark. He just ignited us."