There were hugs all around. Hugs for Chuck Pagano, returning to the sidelines for the first game since week three after a battle with leukemia. Hugs for Bruce Arians, who in Pagano's absence still managed to lead the Colts to an improbable playoff berth. And really, they both deserved the recognition and thanks.
The focus today was on Chuck Pagano, and rightfully so. Pregame the Colts reportedly tried to get him to lead the team out the tunnel, but he refused - not wanting to draw attention to himself. But the attention was unavoidable. Just prior to kickoff, the Colts aired a video on the jumbotrons highlighting Pagano and the team's journey this year. Following that the cameras switched to a live feed of him on the sidelines, but Colts nation didn't need the help. They were already on their feet and as loud as they have been in a long time. Pagano, fighting back tears, saluted the crowd with a fist pump in the air. From the very beginning, you could sense it was going to be a special day.
And it was. The Colts played their best game of the season today as well. The Houston Texans came in as a divison rival and AFC South champion and hoping to lock up the number one seed in the AFC. The Colts came into the day with nothing to play for other than Chuck Pagano - but that was more than enough. The Colts were #ChuckStrong today, in every sense of the phrase that was coined to represent a performance just like the one we witnessed today.
The offense was very good, the defense was very good, and the special teams was very good. It was the best overall performance of the year from a Colts team that hadn't exactly been overwhelmingly impressive recently. But today, they played great as a team and enter the postseason on a high note. Next Sunday at 1:00 p.m., the Colts will take on the AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore. The Ravens are losers of 4 of their last 5 and are certainly beatable - and honestly, I wouldn't want to play this Colts team right now. They're #ChuckStrong - and who knows where that may take them next.
Some notes from today's game:
- Bruce Arians called his best game of the year. Who knows whether or not having the head coaching duties relieved made the difference or whether it was just a brilliant gameplan, or a little of both, but either way it was a great game from Arians. The first half was spectacular play calling and then in the fourth quarter, Arians' 3rd down calls were great - especially the play action pass to Reggie Wayne on 3rd and 2 late in the game. Arians deserves credit for a brilliantly called game and was a big key to the success of the Colts' offense today.
- Arians' quarterback, Andrew Luck, also was very good today. Throw his stat line out the window - he was 14/28 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns without a pick - but he was much better than that. It was the shortest passing game that the Colts have run all year (Luck's average pass traveled only 6.5 yards in the air, his lowest number of the season) and it seemed to work. Luck's numbers suffered from several drops as well, and he got a touchdown taken away on a pass to T.Y. Hilton that certainly appeared to be a score on the replay but instead resulted in a first and goal from inside the 1 yard line. Especially early on, the short passing game really worked and the result was only 1 sack all game - and that against a defense with the best defender in the NFL in J.J. Watt. If there is one thing that I have learned this year, it is that numbers don't come close to telling the whole story. Watch Andrew Luck and you'll realize that is the case. A huge number, however, is the number zero - for the third straight week Luck did not throw an interception. That is huge for the Colts and will be huge going forward.
- Speaking of T.Y. Hilton, he recorded his fifth 100 yard receiving performance of the year, catching 4 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown (as mentioned earlier, looked like it should have been 2). But the highlight of the day, and one of the highlights of the year, was the touchdown pass that did count. It was third and 23 following a holding penalty. Luck took the snap, looked right and then quickly progressed left and hit Hilton for a 70 yard touchdown. The pass was a beauty - perfectly thrown. I mean, that can't be thrown better than Luck did there. It was quite possibly his best pass of the year.
- Side note - that holding penalty that forced the Colts into a third and 23 was a good one. Anthony Castonzo probably saved his quarterback from getting crushed. I'll take that penalty.
- Vontae Davis had a big day, grabbing two over-the-shoulder picks and being solid in coverage all day.
- Dwight Freeney also had a big impact today in what was likely his final home game in Indianapolis. A bittersweet moment, as Freeney notched a great sack and was constantly getting pressure on Schaub in what may have been Freeney's best performance of the year - and his last performance in Indy.
- Deji Karim continued to do very well on returning kicks, including taking a kickoff back 101 yards for a score. He didn't try to get fancy but instead just took it right up the middle and was hardly touched, just blowing by everyone with his speed. Karim has been a big pickup for the return game and today provided the exclamation point.
- Today was as great of a showcase for general manager Ryan Grigson for executive of the year as there has been this year. The Colts' three offensive touchdowns were scored by rookies (Vick Ballard, Coby Fleener, and T.Y. Hilton) and two of them were thrown by another rookie (Andrew Luck). The other touchdown by the Colts was scored by a guy just signed a few weeks ago (Deji Karim). Vontae Davis picked off 2 passes, batted down 3 more, and recorded 5 tackles, while Cassius Vaughn notched 10 tackles - both of whom were aquired in trades this past offseason. Jerrell Freeman, signed from the Canadian Football League in the offseason, also had 10 tackles. The Colts recorded 4 sacks today, from standout players such as Lawrence Guy, Clifton Geathers, and Jamaal Westerman (Dwight Freeney also had a sack). As a guy in the section near me today said after Guy's sack, "Who's that Guy?". Ryan Grigson, take a bow.
- 11-5. 11 wins. What a season it has been for the Colts - one that wasn't expected to amount to much. In the NFL, it's rare to see a team play with this type of emotion. They bonded together, united behind a coach who was absent for much of the year. It's hard not to root for this team - and no matter how far they go, this season has already been a great ride.