INDIANAPOLIS – For many days over the last three months, Chuck Pagano had to turn his car left as it headed toward Lucas Oil Stadium so he could report to a hospital for leukemia treatment.
Today, he felt the pull of the steering wheel, but he held firm and drove to the stadium to see his 10-5 Colts try for an eleventh victory.
In what has been a remarkable and unique season, Pagano hit the sidelines for the first time since September. The Colts who were 9-3 in his absence went 1-0 upon his return in beating Houston, 28-16.
The victory sends the Colts to Baltimore in the Wild Card round.
"This meant the world to me. This team, what transpired out there (is special)," said Pagano. "There's kind of been a mantra from day one with this team. They refused to live in circumstance, they've lived in vision. They believe, they have faith, they have trust. They love one another. What they've done over the course of the last 12 games, to watch them today go out and do what they did (was pleasing)."
Pagano underwent intense treatment for three months, and he told his team today what has been his best tonic all along.
"I told them I received medicine from my doctors…but the best medicine I received was just watching them play," said Pagano. "Week in and week out, it didn't matter. It started my first weekend with Green Bay, and it just kept going and going and going. This team never lost two games in a row. They'd have a bad moment and come right back, win four in a row, win three in a row."
The Colts had a one-season nine-game improvement, tying the third-best mark in NFL history.
Those beyond the locker room downplayed chances for the season. Those inside it did nothing but believe.
"We talked a long time ago, we asked guys, 'What's your legacy going to be? What do you want them to say about you and what do you want them to say about this team 10, 15, 20 years from now?' We're still writing this story because the journey continues," said Pagano. "They've done such an unbelievable job that they've gotten us in the playoffs. We have another game to look for. I think the sky's the limit."
Indianapolis specialized in comeback victories this year, tying a league mark with seven accomplished in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Sunday, the Colts trailed Houston for 12 seconds. After a 10-point burst to start the second half, the Texans grabbed a 16-14 lead. Deji Karim returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards to re-gain the lead.
"We said at half, 'Just play hard. I don't know when your opportunity is going to come. Just play hard every snap, 60 minutes, one play at a time, all you got. When the opportunity is there, take advantage of it,' " said Pagano. "He ignited us."
Indianapolis scored in the fourth quarter on a lightning strike – a 70-yard pass, a rookie connection, from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton on a third-and-23 play. After snuffing Houston offensively afterward, Indianapolis milked the final 9:46 off the clock by snapping 15 plays.
It was a crowning moment for a team with a season full of special circumstances.
"We talked last night…about 'mojo' and momentum," said Pagano. "We talked about different guys who made that possible. When you catch fire, 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. You just catch fire.
"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."