INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano just wanted to savor the moments Sunday.
He waved to the fans, hugged his family, his players, assistant coaches even the Houston Texans. And when the Colts completed their remarkable regular season with a 28-16 victory over the AFC South champion, there was no holding back the joy in the locker room.
"Everybody was dancing. Just not taking anything for granted," Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis said. "The small things in life mean the most."
There was nothing small about this win.
Only two teams — the 2008 Dolphins and the 1999 Colts — produced 10-win turnarounds. On Sunday, the Colts (11-5) joined the next-best group with a nine-win improvement.
Indy now heads to back to its old hometown, Baltimore, for a wild-card game next weekend. And although they were locked into the No. 5 playoff spot before Sunday's game, Pagano decided to play all of his healthy starters the entire game.
Those guys, who won nine times under offensive coordinator and former interim coach Bruce Arians, just wanted one more to help Pagano celebrate his first sideline appearance since Sept. 23. Three days later, he took an indefinite leave from the team to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy. The cancer is now in complete remission and last week, Pagano's oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, gave him medical clearance to return to his old job.
On Sunday, he was back celebrating.
"What a day. What a day," Pagano said full of the same kind of emotion that resonated throughout the stadium, the locker room and even on the Texans' sideline.
In pregame warm-ups, Pagano hugged Arians, shook hands with general manager Ryan Grigson and spoke for several minutes with Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
During the game, Arian Foster celebrated his 13-yard TD run to make it 14-13 in the third quarter, tapping the (hash)Chuckstrong sign hanging on the wall in the back of the end zone.
After the game, Pagano shared a hug with Phillips and several Texans players, got an encouraging message from Texans coach Gary Kubiak and then jogged to the locker room where players and coaches danced and chanted, and Pagano did a do-si-do with team owner Jim Irsay.
"It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all of the cameras flashing when he walked out," Andrew Luck said. "I think that was sort of a lift that he gave us, it was energy. Just to have his physical presence and seeing him on sideline was great."
For the Texas (12-4), it was a debacle.
They blew a second chance to clinch home-field advantage. A few hours later, courtesy of Denver and New England wins, they also lost a first-round bye pushing the team that held the AFC's top playoff seed all season down to No. 3.
The good news is that they'll have a home game against Cincinnati. The bad news: They must play next week and head into the playoffs with three losses in their last four games.
"In this league you play some good teams and you don't play good, you're going to get beat," Kubiak said. "You've got to handle it like a man and move on but we're very capable of flipping it back the other way, too, and that's what I'm going to focus on."
Kubiak has plenty to fix.
Vontae Davis picked off Matt Schaub twice. Schaub was 24 of 36 for 275 yards.
Foster wound up with 16 carries for 96 yards, far less than the 165 yards he burned Indy for two weeks ago.
Deji Karim scored on a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the longest in the Colts' Indy era. Karim's score came just 12 seconds after Houston had taken its only lead of the day.
The defense not only allowed the Colts to convert a third-and-23, but they also gave up a 70-yard TD pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton on the play. That put Houston in a 28-16 hole that they couldn't climb out of.
Indy also ran out the final 9:46 on its last possession, and kept defensive menace J.J. Watt out of reach of the NFL's single-season sacks record. Watt finished with zero sacks Sunday, 20½ this season and two short of Michael Strahan's mark.
But the only thing that really mattered to Houston was another loss. The Texans are now 0-11 all-time at Indy.
"It's just not a good feeling," Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson said after catching 12 passes for 141 yards. "You go out there and you play to win. We wanted to win and we didn't win. That's pretty much it."
The Colts, meanwhile, head into the playoffs with wins in four of their last five games and with a team that has continued to find ways to win even when Luck hasn't played his best ball.
Luck was just 14 of 28 for 191 yards, throwing for two scores. He broke Peyton Manning's franchise rookie record for completions on the game's first series, finishing with 339, 15 short of Sam Bradford's NFL mark. With 22 TD passes this season, he also passed Charlie Connerly for third on the NFL's rookie TD list.
It didn't take long for the Colts to assert themselves in this emotional environment — or to swing the game in their direction after Shayne Graham made a 37-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the third quarter.
Karim fielded the ensuing kickoff a yard deep in the end zone, found a seam in the middle of the field and never slowed until he reached the opposite end zone to make it 21-16.
Then, after being held without a first down in the third quarter, Luck changed that in the blink of an eye with a nifty pass that got just beyond the hands of a defender. Hilton hauled it in raced in for the score to make it 28-16, setting off another wild postgame party.
"I think any time you have a chance to celebrate a season like this, and it's going to continue on, but to complete the regular season and win 11 ball games and the faith and belief and trust that every man in that locker room had, it was just another way for them to express themselves," Pagano said after being handed a game ball by Irsay. "There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of hugging, a lot of dancing going on and a lot of celebrating. There are a lot of things to celebrate right now."
NOTES: Johnson joined former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison as the only players in league history with three seasons of 100 or more catches and 1,500 or more yards. ... Watt had a shared sack taken away in the first half when the officials erased a sack-fumble of Luck because of the Tuck Rule. ... The Colts lost starting guard Joe Reitz in the first half with a head injury. ... Houston linebacker Daryl Sharpton left the game with a hip injury. Linebacker Tim Dobbins left in the second half with what Kubiak thought was a shoulder injury.