And then he came back in.
“I was really surprised,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said, speaking for everyone.
Hilton, who had earlier returned a punt 75 yards for score, came back and caught the game-sealing touchdown pass in the Colts' 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Explain that one. It sure feels like it has something to do with divine intervention or at least destiny as the team fights to build a memorable season for coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano, who's fighting leukemia and winning as his cancer is in remission, attended the game and was shown with owner Jim Irsay on the big screen, tapping his heart and thanking the fans. The fans' ovation was heartfelt in return.
“Whether or not it's divine intervention, I don't think so,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “I would hate to think that he wore our colors and not their colors.”
Fair enough. We'll call Hilton's return from a head shot, and the Colts' continued relevance in Pagano's absence, a heart-warming coincidence then.
The Colts are 7-4 and in the lead for the AFC's top wild-card playoff spot. They bounced back from a bad loss at New England with a sputtering but ultimately satisfying win at home.
They won on a day when Luck was not All-Pro caliber, although his final scoring drive was pretty darn close. Now they enter their final five games, starting at Detroit next Sunday, with everything in their control.
The Colts are a game up in the AFC wild-card race on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Reggie Wayne, who might be the team's Most Valuable Player for helping Luck and mentoring Hilton, says he's not looking at the standings nor are they pondering their remaining schedule and those of their main wild-card competition.
“We don't pay any attention to none of that,” Wayne said. “If we keep winning, we know where we'll be.”
Of their remaining five games, two should be wins (at home vs. the Titans and at Kansas City, although the Chiefs gave the Broncos fits Sunday). It'll be tougher to win at Detroit and either on the road or at home against the AFC South-leading Houston Texans.
They'll clearly need some moments like the 15-play, 87-yard, eight-minute epic drive that put the Colts up 20-6 with the margin they needed to control the game Sunday.
Luck started the game playing like a quarterback still shell-shocked by the Patriots. He completed only three of his first nine passes and threw an interception. Even late in the first half, on a nice half-minute field goal drive, his pass to Wayne was a yard short of the end zone.
In the third quarter, however, he found his touch.
Luck completed third-down passes to Wayne (15 yards), Donnie Avery (10 yards), Wayne again (25 yards) and finally Hilton (eight yards for the touchdown). The second third-down completion to Wayne came on 3rd-and-17 and Luck stood under pressure, double-pumped and delivered.
The best sight of the day for Colts fans was Pagano on the big screen. Second-best: Hilton with the ball in the back of the end zone.
“We need more of those drives,” Luck said. “When we needed it most, we got that drive and ended it with a four-minute drive or whatever you want to call it. We need more of those types of drives.”
Luck finished with 20 of 37 passes for 240 yards and joined Peyton Manning as the only players in Colts history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in their rookie season. Wayne broke Cris Carter's obscure record with his 59th straight game of three or more receptions.
It's clear these Colts are not destined to blow teams out. Even when it looks like they're ready to ice a game, as they were on safety Tom Zbikowski's late interception, an obstacle arises. Zbikowski attempted to stiff arm Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, but Johnson stripped the ball and recovered the fumble.
So the Colts needed defensive plays by linebacker Jerrell Freeman (16 tackles, one sack) and cornerback Cassius Vaughn to stop the Bills again. Luck and the offense then ran out the clock.
We'll assume Pagano, who goes in for his third-and-final chemotherapy treatment this week, was smiling.
“We have a group of young men and older men who have a cause,” Arians said. “When you play for a cause, you play together. It's all 53 guys for one common cause and that's to extend this season for Chuck.”
I'm not sure how they're doing it sometimes. It's not supernatural. After all, it's just football. But it sure is looking like something super.