INDIANAPOLIS –Colts players walked into the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center last Monday and found out their Head Coach Chuck Pagano was fighting a battle with leukemia and would not be around for a while.
A beloved figure, the moment was a hard hit for the players, coaches and the entire organization.
Interim leader Bruce Arians took charge for Pagano and during the week challenged the club's "five-star" players to emerge against the Packers. He exhorted the entire roster, too, keeping the same instruction Pagano had instilled before, to use 45 players for a 60-minute fight.
On Sunday, Arians walked where only five men previously have walked in franchise history – onto a playing field as the interim coach.
Arians joined the path taken by John Sandusky in 1972, Joe Thomas in 1974, Hal Hunter in 1984 and Rick Venturi in 1991.
Arians did something that quartet was unable to do, and that was to earn a victory in an opening game as the substitute field leader. The Colts rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to a 30-27 victory, with the winning touchdown coming in the final 35 seconds.
"It's the craziest win I've ever been in in my life," said Arians. "I can't say enough about the resiliency of these guys and the fight. It wasn't pretty in the first half, we know that. We got together at halftime and there was no panic. There was just, 'This is what we have to do, let's get it done.' "
Get it done, the team did. What looked like a methodical Green Bay exhibition of football turned on a dime three plays into the second half when cornerback Jerraud Powers intercepted Aaron Rodgers.
It was a key play that sparked an Indianapolis rebound during a specific game period Arians targeted for improvement during the week.
Indianapolis had struggled in its three previous third quarters in 2012, scoring but three points all season in the stanza. That tide was reversed yesterday as the Colts tallied 16 points to turn the game around.
The early energy allowed the Colts to score 27 points and roll to 256 net yards and 18 first downs in the second half, scoring on five-of-seven possessions before a game-ending kneel down. Conversely, Indianapolis halted Green Bay on seven-of-eight second-half possessions, sacking Aaron Rodgers five times.
The comeback was gritty and was done by channeling focus and the emotion of the week. It was the fourth time a Colts team bounced back from an 18-point regular-season deficit to win. There were five other larger comebacks in franchise history (four from 21 points; one from 20 points), but none under quite the circumstances.
"We had to settle down," said Arians. "I think everybody was still caught up in it (the week's emotions), and we were shooting ourselves in the foot and cutting ourselves and bleeding. We had to stop the bleeding at halftime."
His "five-star" performers responded. With 13 receptions for 212 yards, Reggie Wayne became the first Colts receiver ever with two 200 regular-season outings. Luck hit 31-of-55 passes for 362 yards, with two touchdowns, and he had a three-yard scoring run of his own. Luck became the second NFL rookie quarterback with three 300 outings in his first four games. Defensive end Cory Redding had two sacks, while linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis notched sacks as a tandem in a 33rd game together. The Colts are 25-8 in those games. Powers subdued a potent Rodgers with the interception, giving his team possession in an opponent's territory. Safety Antoine Bethea was among the leading tacklers, and kicker Adam Vinatieri converted three field goals, one from 50 yards and another from 28 that gave Indianapolis its first lead.
"I think everybody knows what this game meant to Reggie, and he brought his A-game," said Arians. "Wednesday I challenged our five-star players, and our five-star players showed up. He (Wayne) led the way, Andrew (Luck), Robert (Mathis), Dwight (Freeney), Antoine (Bethea), (Powers) had big interception in the second half. (The) five-star guys stepped in."
As for his players, there is a deep regard for Arians.
"He is very effective. He is very, 'Tell it like it is.' If you did a bad job, he's going to tell you," said tackle Anthony Castonzo. "If you did a good job, he's going to tell you. He is always looking for ways to correct things. He is a very cerebral guy. He knows what he is doing, which is awesome."
"He's not that guy that is going to have that separation between coaches and players," said Mathis. "He's one of us, a player's coach. We'll rally behind him."
Arians stayed on point with the team Sunday. He told his men not to panic, play like they practiced during the week and to stay the course.
"Coach Arians said we've got to control our emotions," said Bethea. "It's going to be very emotional just knowing what Coach Pagano's going through and what we said we were going to do, how we were going to play. Just control our emotions, and I think we did that."
It is not determined how long Pagano will be away from the club. Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay indicated last week it might not be possible for him to return on an "all-in" status this year as he fights his treatable illness.
Sandusky led the team for nine games in 1972, earning a 4-5 mark. Thomas was 2-9 in his 11 games in 1974. Hunter coached only the last game in 1984 after Frank Kush's departure, and the club fell to New England. Venturi won one of his 11 outings as an interim coach.
Arians has started differently than those with whom he shares a delicate situation. He handled that situation well yesterday. Arians, who along with Pagano had a birthday last week, will keep fighting.
"We tried to keep (emotion) out and just play football," said Arians. "This game is emotional enough without adding more pressuring emotions, trying to do something that you're not capable of doing or more than you need to do. Just do your job. The guys did it. I think the emotion built from the crowd, that's what we need every week. Feed off the crowd, play good football, and your emotions are pretty good."