More like rolled up in newspaper and strapped with string.
It was no less beautiful for the Colts, who gave returning head coach Chuck Pagano the greatest gift they could by following his message: ignore the circumstances, win the moment.
Outgained by more than 200 yards by a heretofore impotent Kansas City offense, outrushed by 262 and generally outplayed for most of the day, the Colts – once again – found a way to win.
Andrew Luck found Reggie Wayne in the back of the end zone for the deciding touchdown with 4:08 remaining to beat Kansas City, 20-13, and clinch the franchise’s 10th playoff berth in 11 years – and perhaps the most unlikely in its storied history.
“To say it’s a storybook is almost an understatement,” said first-year General Manager Ryan Grigson. “If the locker room was empty I’d probably be in the corner bawling.”
“We went through a lot this year, all the adversity and all of the doubters, all the stuff that Chuck’s gone through and the team, the organization, all the things that’s happened,” said Dwight Freeney. “This is special but we still have more to go. You don’t see champagne popping, anything like that. We still have things to accomplish.”
At 10-5, the Colts hold the fifth seed and become the fourth team in NFL history to improve from two wins to 10 in one season. They also made Christmas Eve that much more pleasant Pagano, who is expected to return to work tomorrow after a three-month battle with leukemia that now is in complete remission.
He will he handed back the reins by Bruce Arians, who merely went 9-2 filling in during Pagano’s illness, tied for the most wins by an interim in NFL history
“Mission accomplished,” Arians said. “We set out to extend this season for Chuck and now he can come back Monday and not be in a stressful environment. We’re in, and locked down and he can get back into the flow of things at his pace. That means the world to me. That was the job that was asked of me and our football team delivered it, and it was all of them.”
So it was Sunday.
Reggie Wayne took over on the decisive drive, converting first downs on second-and-11 and second-and-12 before snaring the third-and-goal bullet thrown high but true by Luck. He surpassed 100 receptions for the fourth time in his career, tying the second most in league history.
Luck’s day was not exactly picturesque; at one stretch in the second half he threw 10 consecutive incompletions and wound up completing less than half his throws (17 of 35) for the fourth game in a row. But with the game on the line he hit six in a row and along the way broke Cam Newton’s rookie record for passing yards. With 205, Luck pushed his total to 4,183.
A defense that was otherwise shredded most of the day, yielding 507 total yards, 352 on the ground (226 to Jamaal Charles and 101 to Peyton Hillis), came up with three huge plays, including two takeaways inside the Colts’ 20-yard line.
The other came from Darius Butler. Signed the week Pagano learned of his leukemia diagnosis, the young cornerback returned his fourth interception of the season for his second touchdown to put the Colts up 7-0.
“We had struggled all day, there was no doubt, and we’ve been struggling for a little bit of time, our young offense, but our defense came up with some huge plays,” Arians said. “Turnover ratio was going to be huge in this game, we knew it, and our defense got three of them. Yardage doesn’t mean a daggone thing, it’s the scoreboard.
“That’s the way we’ve been all year: when we’ve had to do something, we’ve done it. That drive was big after struggling in a 1-for-13 stretch where we dropped about four passes but when we had to have it, guys stepped up and made plays.”
And to top it all off, Pagano is expected to be back at work Monday, addressing the team in its 10 a.m. meeting as preparations begin for the regular-season finale against Houston.
“I’m not sure it’ll be much of a transition,” said Freeney. “He’s been a part of these wins. He’s been talking to the coaching staff, he’s been part of all of it, the wins and the losses. We hear his voice in everything B.A. says and everything he wants on the field and off the field, we continue to do. It’s not going to be all-of-a-sudden a big, huge game other than seeing one of our family members here with his, which is going to be great.
It’s an important game for the Texans, who need a win to secure the top seed in the AFC, but relatively inconsequential for the Colts.
Inconsequential but, thanks to Pagano’s return, anything but meaningless.