INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano put on his dancing shoes and savored every moment of Sunday’s postgame celebration.
He took his customary linebacker stance on the sideline, hands on bended knees. He signaled touchdowns when the Colts scored, patted Deji Karim on the helmet after a 101-yard kickoff return for a game-changing touchdown, and gestured for penalty flags to be thrown.
And after Indianapolis beat AFC South champion Houston 28-16, Pagano even tossed aside the stodgy image of an NFL coach and began jumping around with players, assistant coaches and even team owner Jim Irsay like he was a kid again.
“There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of dancing, a lot of hugging going on and a lot of celebrating,” an emotional Pagano said. “There’s a lot to celebrate right now.”
It started with Pagano’s return.
He took an indefinite leave Sept. 26 to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy for leukemia Sept. 26 and didn’t make it back to the sideline until Sunday when the cancer was in complete remission.
When he left the field, he hugged everybody in sight — assistant coaches, Colts players, even Texans players and coaches — before moving the postgame party to the locker room, where Irsay presented him with a game ball and they did a do-si-do together.
“What a day, what a day,” he said.
For everyone on the Colts.
“Guys really did not want to lose in his first game back and heading into the playoffs,” rookie quarterback Andrew Luck said. “To get a win, I think means the world to him.”
Luck, as usual, had a big hand in the victory. He was 14 of 28 for 191 yards with two more touchdowns and no interceptions.
He wasn’t alone, though.
Karim swung the game with the kickoff return just seconds after the Texans took their only lead, and when Luck converted on third-and-23 with the 70-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter, the crowd was in a frenzy.
The Colts (11-5) will play at Baltimore in the wild-card round next weekend. The slumping Texans (12-4) have lost three of their last four and won’t know their AFC seeding until after Denver and New England finish later Sunday.
“We had a great opportunity the last two weeks, but we won’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said after giving Pagano a hug and whispering in his ear after the game. “We’ll focus on keeping our confidence up, even if we have to play next week.”
Indy did everything it needed to Sunday.
The Colts prevented J.J. Watt from getting too close to Luck — or any closer to Michael Strahan’s NFL sacks record (22½). Watt finished with 20½.
“We didn’t win, so I could care less about the record. It’s about winning,” Watt said.
Luck broke Peyton Manning’s franchise record for completions by a rookie but fell 15 short of Sam Bradford’s NFL mark. Luck also moved into third all-time among rookies with 22 TD passes.
And Indy completed the second greatest turnaround in league history — winning nine more games than it did in 2011.
“Man, this has been a great year, a storybook ending,” Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said. “Let’s keep it going. Hopefully we can continue to write this movie.”
It didn’t take long for the Colts to assert themselves in this emotional environment — or to turn the game when the Texans took their only lead. Shayne Graham made a 37-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the third quarter, a lead that lasted all of 12 seconds.
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. Pagano patted him on the helmet after the longest kickoff return since the Colts moved to Indy in 1984.
Then, facing third-and-23 from the 30, Luck threw a perfect strike through a narrow opening, hitting Hilton in stride for a 70-yard TD to make it 28-16.
On a day the Texans mostly settled for field goals, that’s all the Colts needed.
Luck masterfully led the Colts to a 14-6 halftime lead.
Houston made it 14-13 when Arian Foster broke through a hole for a 13-yard TD run and saluted Pagano by tapping the (hash)Chuckstrong sign hanging on the wall behind the end zone instead of doing his trademark bow. Foster ran 16 times for 96 yards.
Graham’s 37-yard field goal gave Houston the lead with 5:22 to go in the third quarter, but Karim’s long TD return set off a celebration that didn’t end until after Pagano had done his dance.
“It’s like a dream come true again,” Pagano said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be down there.”
Schaub finished 24 of 36 for 275 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Foster ran 16 times for 96 yards.
NOTES: Andre Johnson caught 12 passes for 141 yards and became the second player in league history with three seasons of 100 or more catches and 1,500 or more yards. The other: Former Colt Marvin Harrison. … Manning had 326 completions, Luck finished the season with 339. … 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.