INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts were 1-1 in the first two games of the final quarter of the season and were closing in on a playoff berth.
A look at games 15 and 16 of the 2012 season.
Game 15: COLTS 20, KANSAS CITY 13
Though a division title now was not possible, a Wild Card berth was close at hand, and the Colts were going on the road for the last time of the regular season to try to secure it.
Cory Redding did not want the last road trip to result in a first for a young team – a losing streak.
"Never allow one loss to turn into two, period," said Redding. "You have to dig deep and challenge yourself to be better. We've come too far to reach this point to let it all be in vain. I won't stand idly by and let that happen, and I know my teammates won't either. Every game from here on out is extra important. We all know that. (It's) a two-game season."
The 9-5 Colts were meeting the 2-12 Chiefs. A win or a tie meant a 12th playoff berth for the franchise since 1999. It would make the 2012 Colts only the third NFL team in the past 30 years to make the playoffs after losing at least 14 games the previous season. A loss threw uncertainty into the final week of the season.
The Colts were meeting a team with 12 or more losses for the first time since earning a 31-21 win over 0-13 Detroit in 2008, a game where Indianapolis scored the final 10 points. It brought back memories for some of 2011 when the 0-13 Colts beat 7-6 Tennessee to derail their playoff aspirations.
Redding left nothing to chance as he framed the opportunity early in the week.
"As long as you're a pro in this league, you are a deadly weapon," said Redding. "You still have passion. You still have fire, and you love to compete. I don't care what their record says. If it's 2-14 or whatever, those guys are going to come out ready to play. They want to fight for a job. They're playing at home. They're playing amongst their peers, their family and friends. They want to go out there and prove to themselves that they are a worthy team."
Robert Mathis remembered last year's game with Tennessee, and he distilled Redding's message into fewer words.
"(It's) a playoff spot. Win or go home," said Mathis. "We just can't go out there and lay an egg like we did last week. If you have a goal in mind and you want to achieve it, you just have to go out there and get a victory.
Last year, we were sitting in the same spot, not many wins. It's the NFL. You can't underestimate anybody."
For a change, Indianapolis started quickly when Darius Butler returned an interception 32 yards for a score five minutes into the game.
It was anything but a Kansas City masterpiece early on for the Colts offensively. Indianapolis punted on three-of-five first-half possessions, netting Adam Vinatieri field goals of 48 and 36 yards for a 13-3 halftime lead. The second score came after the offense zipped 60 yards in the final 1:02 of the quarter.
Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis each rushed for 48 first-half yards, as Kansas City had 109 at the break.
Charles peeled off an 86-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half, matching the result Maurice Jones-Drew did to the Colts in week three as Jacksonville rallied for an upset.
Indianapolis punted four times in the third quarter as the Chiefs tied the contest. Charles had 165 rushing yards in the quarter, and Hillis added 29 more. Indianapolis failed to convert four third downs and gained 52 net yards.
The Colts righted themselves in the fourth quarter for the seventh time of the season, however. The club yielded 352 rushing yards on the day, but none came on two attempts from the Indianapolis 27 with 10 minutes to play.
Using the solid defensive stand, Andrew Luck moved the Colts 73 yards on 13 plays. Luck hit six straight passes on the drive after being one-for-10 in the third quarter. He hit near-chunk passes of 11, 18 and 12 yards before teaming with Reggie Wayne on a seven-yarder with 4:08 to go for the winning score.
Indianapolis nailed down the AFC's fifth seed in style with another defensive stand and a 13-yard run by Vick Ballard on third-and-10 with 2:20 remaining. The Colts drained the clock and celebrated a playoff berth. The team also readied itself for Chuck Pagano's return the next day.
"It really is quite a team. I can't say enough about the guys in the locker room, mission accomplished," said Bruce Arians. "We set out to extend this season for Chuck. Now he can come back Monday and not be in the stressful time that we're in. He can get back into the flow of things at his pace. It means the world to me. Our football team delivered. It's every guy on the team. It's a team (effort). That's what these kids do every week."
Arians credited the offense and defense for producing in the clutch, and he shrugged off the statistics (Charles, 226 rushing yards; Hillis, 101 rushing yards; Chiefs, 507 net yards) in favor of the final score.
"That drive was huge," said Arians. "We had struggled all day. We've been struggling for a little bit of time, a young offense. Our defense came up with some huge plays. Turnover ratio was going to be huge in this game, we knew it. Our defense got three of them. Yardage doesn't mean a dag-gone thing, it's the scoreboard."
Turning point: The defense was battered and bruised, but never beaten. The Colts stopped third-and-one and fourth-and-one rushes at their 27 in a tie game with 10 minutes to go. The change of possession set the stage for the winning drive. As it had done numerous times in the year, the defense made plays when needed, holding the fort until the offense was able to strike.
"It was tough. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute battle. They got their running game going. At the right time, we got some big plays. We toughened up at the right time and got a team win. We made plays deep in our end. The fourth-down stop was big. We stepped up," said Antoine Bethea.
Moment to remember: In a season of special happenings, the job Bruce Arians did in helping win nine times in 12 games in Chuck Pagano's absence was outstanding. The only times an interim coach had as many as that were by Hamp Pool (Rams, 1952) and Wally Lemm (Oilers, 1961). Arians espoused Pagano's message daily and kept the lights burning until Pagano's return. He did so cooly, firmly, bluntly and loquaciously.
"He was our interim leader. He came in and filled some big shoes and did a great job keeping everyone together. It could have been easy for us to lose focus. We could have gone into the tank. He was able to keep everybody into it. He kept everybody sticking to the process," said Reggie Wayne.
Note: This was the seventh fourth-quarter or overtime comeback win, and Luck tied the NFL mark by a QB, and it was accomplished six other times. He snapped the club mark of nine rookie starting wins by Chris Chandler (1989). It was the club's 12th 10-win season in 14 years. Indianapolis became the second NFL team to win 10 or more games after losing 14 or more the prior year, and it moved its record to 9-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Indianapolis produced only the ninth season in franchise history without consecutive losses (1964, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1976, 1999, 2003). Luck's 4,183 yards set the NFL rookie record. The Charles touchdown run was the longest allowed in Colts history. Darius Butler's scoring interception was the club's fourth on the year, tying a franchise seasonal record. Wayne topped 100 seasonal receptions for the fourth time, making him one of five NFL players to do so. He also became the 14th player to top 13,000 career receiving yards. Dwayne Allen (43) set the franchise rookie positional reception record (42, Ken Dilger). Dwight Freeney sacked the 53rd QB of his career, while Antoine Bethea topped 800 career tackles and Jerrell Freeman (10) topped the team in stops for the 13th time in 15 outings. Adam Vinatieri (Colts/New England) became one of only three players with 700 points with two different teams (Morten Andersen, New Orleans/Atlanta; John Carney, San Diego/New Orleans).
*Quote to note: *"(We bought in) from the jump. We were all in the different situation all together, coaches coming over, players who were here seeing new faces and the new guys coming in. We were all in the situation together. Coach Pagano was talking, 'We're family. Trust, loyalty.' We knew from the beginning what type of monster Coach Pagano was trying to build. This is a team that asked, 'Why not? Why can't we be here? What's stopping us?' The only thing stopping us is ourselves. We haven't allowed that to happen. Everybody bought in." – Antoine Bethea
*Quote to note (2): *"I did a lot of dancing. I can't do that Gangnam thing, though." – Bruce Arians (on post-game locker room)
Game 16: COLTS 28, HOUSTON 16
"The happiest day of my life was July 1, 1989. That's when I got married to my wife, Tina," said Chuck Pagano as he thanked her for being a "warrior, soldier and soul mate. I told you the best day of my life…today is number two."
Pagano made his comments upon returning to the team on Monday, December 24, a day after the Colts beat Kansas City and ensuring this would be a perfect Christmas Eve present.
While away, Pagano's Colts went 9-3, earning a playoff berth it could present to him as everyone celebrated being whole again.
"What a joyous occasion. We're in the playoffs, we're ecstatic about that. The main thing we're ecstatic about is Chuck is here, and he's healthy," said Jim Irsay. "To be here now, it's just a joy. I want to thank everyone, the entire state of Indiana and people throughout the country who have prayed and gotten behind Chuck…with the support that means so much to him.
"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. I know the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey of the second half of the season, which includes the playoffs. We are so excited."
Earlier in the morning, Pagano received an extended standing ovation from players and coaches, one Reggie Wayne thought was among the longest he ever had witnessed. Pagano made sure to voice his appreciation.
"What a masterful job you did, Bruce," said Pagano. "You carried the torch. All you went out and did was win nine ballgames and got us our 10th win yesterday, and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity, and you did it with class.
"The entire coaching staff, all the work you've done and put in, I can't thank you enough. To our players, for their effort and work, I told them this morning the sky's the limit for this group. There is no quit."
Though the conference's fifth playoff seed was cemented, the order of business was to meet Houston, 29-17 victors two weeks ago over Indianapolis, and the Texans needed a win to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. A loss could drop Houston to the third seed and thrust it into Wild Card weekend.
The unlikeliest topic of all surfaced, should the team play or rest players?
"This team, or its head coach for that matter, doesn't know what it means to sit back and rest or look ahead," said Ryan Grigson. "This is a team who goes out to the middle of the ring and no matter the odds or how weary they may be, they go blow-for-blow until the bell rings and wills itself to be the last man standing."
The approach by Indianapolis differed from that of the past. The Colts rested players near the end of successful seasons in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Pagano had just stared down and beaten leukemia. Playing full-out was the way to go.
"Absolutely," said Chuck Pagano. "It's just not our DNA (to rest). From day one, we set goals for ourselves, amongst a lot of other things. Just watching what this team has done over the course of the last 12 weeks and the entire season, it's just not in our DNA. It's not in our make-up.
"These kids deserve it. Their families deserve it. Our fans and this city deserves our best every game, regardless of the situation, regardless of the circumstances. They're going to roll the ball out there. It's our job to go out there and try and win a football game. That's what we're going to do."
The 28-16 win that ensued was one of the most satisfying Sundays in the club's Indianapolis era. The Colts grabbed a 14-6 halftime lead, suffered a 12-second span in the third quarter when it trailed, then scored two sizzling touchdowns for the game's final score.
The Colts punctuated the win by holding the ball for the final 9:46 of the game, snapping 15 plays in moving 63 yards. The club rushed 14 times, converted three third downs and drained all the time off the clock despite two Houston timeouts and the two-minute warning.
"We talked last night in the team meeting about 'mojo' and momentum," said Pagano. "When you catch fire, you get hot, anything in the world can happen. To be able to play our guys and for them to do what they did and come out with a win, to go 7-1 at home and go into the playoffs with this kind of feeling, anything can happen.
"The definition of (mojo) is magical spell. We talked about the 'Midas Touch,' the uncanny ability to where everything you touch turns to gold. We said, 'Okay, what's uncanny?' (It's) the supernatural. I don't know if those things are taking place. This team can do and go as far as they want to go."
Turning point: Indianapolis drew ahead 7:09 into the game with an opening-possession touchdown. A 14-6 halftime lead was lost briefly when Houston scored 10 points on its first two second-half possessions. Deji Karim settled matters by returning the kickoff after the second Texans score 101 yards for a touchdown, the longest such return in the club's Indianapolis era. Karim had signed with the team recently and had been parking cars in Oklahoma City after being waived by Indianapolis earlier in the year. He was the next example of players achieving in the moment for a winning team.
*Moment to remember: *Chuck Pagano had taken the field in warm ups to the applause of Colts fans and with cameras that beamed those images far beyond Lucas Oil Stadium. Just before kickoff, there was a tribute shown on the in-stadium screens and a naturally-emotional person was moved deeply. "Before the kickoff, what the fans did, that moment I'll remember for the rest of my life. I can't thank our organization and fans enough for that moment," said Pagano. "It was very humbling."
Note: Indianapolis produced its eighth 11-win season in the last 10 years (14, 2005, 2009; 13, 2007; 12, 2003, 2004; 2006; 2008; 11, 2012). The Colts were 9-1 in games decided by seven points or less, the most number of such games by an NFL team in 2012. Indianapolis won its last eight straight games decided by seven points or less. By earning a playoff berth, the Colts joined Miami (2008) and New England (1982) on the list of teams to make the playoffs one year after going 2-14 or worse. By earning 11 wins, the Colts became only the fourth team to win as many as 10 games after a season of two or fewer victories (Miami, 1-15 in 2007 and 11-5 in 2008; Colts 2-12 in 1974 and 10-4 in 1975; Oakland 1-13 in 1962 and 10-4 in 1963). The Colts became the sixth of 37 teams ever to bounce back with a winning record after having lost 14 or more games the previous season. (Detroit jumped from 2-14 in 1979 to 9-7 in 1980. New England jumped from 2-14 in 1981 to 5-4 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. The 1991 1-15 Colts were 9-7 in 1992. The 1996 1-15 New York Jets were 9-7 in 1997. The 2007 1-15 Miami Dolphins went to 11-5. The 2011 2-14 Colts went 11-5 in 2012.) At 11-5, Indianapolis had a nine-game improvement from last season. Twice previously the team had one-season eight-game improvements – from 2-12 in 1974 to 10-4 in 1975 and from 1-15 in 1991 to 9-7 in 1992. Those are tied for the eighth-best one-year jumps in history, while the nine-game jump tied for third-best. The 1999 Colts and 2008 Dolphins share the NFL mark with a one-year 10-game jump. The Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3.
Luck (339-of-627 passing, 4,374 yards and 23 TDs) set NFL rookie records in attempts, yards and 300 games (six). His completions set the club rookie standard. Luck teamed with T.Y. Hilton on a 70-yard scoring play on third-and-23 for the team's last regular-season touchdown, and its longest of the year. Luck gained his 11th starting win, tying the second-most by an NFL rookie (13, Ben Roethlisberger; 11, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson), and it was the most ever achieved by a top overall pick. Hilton extended his club rookie mark with five 100-yard games receiving, and he topped the league with five scores exceeding 20 yards. With 50-861, 7 TDs receiving on the season, Hilton became the ninth Colts rookie with 50 receptions, while his yardage total ranked second for Colts rookies and his touchdowns tied for third-most. Wayne (106 receptions, 1,355 yards) extended his league record to 64 straight games with three or more receptions. A defensive line that had contributions from newcomers all year saw Lawrence Guy, Jamaal Westerman and Clifton Geathers produce sacks against Houston, along with Dwight Freeney (who has 107.5 for his career). Jerrell Freeman ended the year with 203 tackles, joining Jeff Herrod (200, 1994) as the only Colts to reach that seasonal plateau. Pat McAfee (73-47.9, 40.3 net) set the club seasonal marks for gross and net average. McAfee has set the gross mark in each of the last two seasons (46.6, 2011). Eight Colts rookies combined to produce 3,108 yards, the most achieved by an NFL team's rookie class since the 1970 merger. Six of the rookies are draft picks – Andrew Luck (255 rushing), Coby Fleener (281 receiving), Dwayne Allen (521 receiving/5 rushing), T.Y. Hilton (861 receiving/29 rushing), Vick Ballard (814 rushing/152 receiving) and LaVon Brazill (186 receiving) – while free agents Dominique Jones (eight) and Nathan Palmer (minus-four) factored into the process. The previous post-merger NFL record was set by the Colts' 1999 rookie class that gained 2,751 yards.
*Quote to note: *"These guys have had some amazing victories. This is another one of them to add to it. Any time you have a chance to celebrate a season like this and it's going to continue on, but to complete a regular season and win 11 games, the faith, belief and trust every man in the locker room had, it was another way to express themselves. There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of dancing, a lot of hugging and celebrating. There are a lot of things to celebrate. It's joy, and then back to business, back to work tomorrow." – Chuck Pagano