INDIANAPOLIS – For weeks, Colts players and fans of the team everywhere waited for the return of Head Coach Chuck Pagano from his battle with leukemia.
The moment reached a peak just prior to kickoff, and Andrew Luck marveled at the scene.
"It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel, with all the cameras flashing when he walked out," said Luck. "That was sort of a lift he gave us. It was energy. Just to have his physical presence and see him on the sideline was great."
Pagano waged a tremendous fight to return, but he was not immune to the reaction and a special video tribute that aired in-stadium within seconds of kickoff.
"Before the kickoff, what the fans did, that moment I'll remember that for the rest of my life. I can't thank our organization and fans enough for that moment," said Pagano. "It was very humbling.
"The fans…I thank them. We have the very best fans in the NFL, and for the out-pouring of support they've shown me and my family and what they did for this team. To be down there with everyone was a blessing. Any time you've been taken away from what you know and what you've done your entire life and you're sidelined (is difficult). It was all made possible by a lot of different things. It was a great feeling to be back."
Early in the week Pagano said Sunday would be full speed ahead, no resting players though the Colts were nailed into the fifth playoff seed. Still, players wanted to perform for their coach in style.
"Guys did not want to lose in his first game back right before the playoffs starting," said Luck. "There had been talk of resting guys. Coach Pagano is not of that school of thought, and we were behind him 100 percent.
"We were glad to go out and fire on full cylinders, per se. To get a win means the world to the players."
Luck played initially at Stanford for a boisterous coach in Jim Harbaugh. He had three games under Pagano until medical matters intervened. Luck toiled under Bruce Arians, another fiery type, until today, and he knows the impact Pagano has on everyone.
"It's uplifting for someone who doesn't know him or have a relationship with him it was great to see him out there," said Luck. "Football-wise, it was nice to have his presence. He knows a lot about the game, situational football. It was good to get a win for him."
Though Luck is one of the faces of the team, he always tips a cap to those who do not draw the spotlight. With seven comeback fourth-quarter or overtime wins this season, a great deal of attention is paid to Luck. He loves to praise others.
Sunday's 28-16 victory over Houston featured stellar defensive and special teams play. Lawrence Guy, Clifton Geathers and Jamaal Westerman combined for three of the club's four sacks, while the team erased a 12-second deficit when Deji Karim sprinted 101 yards with a kickoff.
It was a matter of players across the roster making plays, something that Luck says makes this year's team a fun bunch.
"It was great to see Deji Karim come in and "housecall," 101 yards on a kickoff return. That's so uplifting for a team," said Luck. "I've said earlier (this year), guys just play hard. No matter the score, the point of the game, the situation, offense, defense, special teams, guys are going out and playing hard.
"It's contagious when you're on a team. You don't want to let those guys down who are busting their butts. It's a real fun team to be on."
COLTS COMPLETE ONE OF THE BEST NFL TURNAROUNDS – Sunday was the Colts' 11th victory of the season, a nine-game jump from last year's 2-14 record. It tied the third-best mark in league history.
LARGEST ONE-SEASON JUMPS
Games, Team, Year One, Year Two, Playoff record/result
10, Colts, 3-13 (1998), 13-3 (1999)*, 0-1/Lost in Divisional Playoffs
10, Miami, 1-15 (2007), 11-5 (2008)*, 0-1/Lost in Wild Card Playoffs
9, N.Y. Giants, 4-7-2 (1928), 13-1-1 (1929), No playoffs
9, Oakland, 1-13 (1962), 10-4 (1963), No playoffs
9, St. Louis, 4-12 (1998), 13-3 (1999)*, 3-0/Won Super Bowl XXIV
9, Pittsburgh, 6-10 (2003), 15-1 (2004)*, 1-1/Lost in AFC Championship game
9, Colts, 2-14 (2011), 11-5 (2012), 0-0/Playing in Wild Card Playoffs
8, Colts, 2-12 (1974), 10-4 (1975)*, 0-1/Lost in Divisional Playoffs
8, New England, 3-11 (1975), 11-3 (1976), 0-1/Lost in Divisional Playoffs
8, Cincinnati, 4-11 (1987), 12-4 (1988)*, 2-1/Lost in Super Bowl XXIII
8, Colts, 1-15 (1991), 9-7 (1992), No Playoffs
8, N.Y. Jets, 1-15 (1996), 9-7 (1997), No Playoffs
8, Chicago, 5-11 (2000), 13-3 (2001)*, 0-1/Lost in Divisional Playoffs
8, San Diego, 4-12 (2003), 12-4 (2004)*, 0-1/Lost in Wild Card Playoffs