INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano talked about “mojo” with his Indianapolis Colts players on Saturday night, mentioning that the definition is “magical spell.”
I'm more inclined to go with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' ongoing take: These Colts thrive because they have a purpose.
But let's split the difference. Winning for Pagano is the purpose. Pagano's return adds additional mojo. The combination might even be more than the Baltimore Ravens can handle when the teams meet for a wildcard playoff game at 1 p.m. Sunday in Baltimore.
The Colts (11-5) made Pagano's return as head coach both heartwarming and satisfying as they beat the Houston Texans 28-16 on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Texans were shipped back to Houston without the No.1 playoff seed and with a still winless record (0-11) in Indianapolis.
“Happy, happy, joy, joy,” Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis said about the post-game locker room. “Everybody was dancing and not taking anything for granted and the small things in life mean the most.”
There are all sorts of lessons to be taken from this Colts season and Pagano's plight as he fought and beat leukemia. There are lessons off the field, certainly, of the preciousness of life and family. We all know cancer's a dirty opponent, and we all cheered – even in the press box – for Pagano to win.
But there are lessons on the field, too, lessons of resilience, of camaraderie and of the need for every player to contribute. Consider this: Perhaps the biggest play Sunday was the 101-yard kickoff return touchdown by the Colts' Deji Karim after the Colts had lost the lead. Three weeks ago, Karim was parking cars.
The Colts' defense limited the Texans to one touchdown and three field goals. Vontae Davis picked off Matt Schaub twice. The Colts sacked Schaub four times. Those sacks were by Dwight Freeney (a guy we all know) and Clifton Geathers, Jamaal Westerman and Lawrence Guy (guys few of us know, unless our last name is Guy).
“They threw a sack party,” Mathis said. “I was kind of mad I wasn't invited to it. Nah, it was fun to see that and fun to get the win.”
The fun started when Pagano returned to the sidelines, his first time as coach since Week 3, when he went into the bye week, went to the doctor and had his life turned upside down. After nearly three months of treatment, his leukemia was battled into remission. He was cleared to come back and Arians, the interim coach, gave him back the keys to the team.
Fans greeted Pagano with a long, emotional ovation. Late in the game, when the offense kept the ball for nine minutes, the fans started chanting “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck!”
“It was a like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all the cameras flashing when he walked out,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said. “That was sort of a life that he gave us, it was energy.”
By the time the improbable win was over and Pagano reached the postgame news conference, his eyes were dry. He paused a couple times, still harboring emotion, but he seems to be getting stronger by the minute. Watching this team will do that for a man.
“I told our team I received medicine from my doctors and I had to go rough things that everybody else has to go through who has battled what I battled,” Pagano said. “The best medicine I received was just watching them play week in and week out.”
The Colts played one of their best games of the season against the Texans. It was a bit illogical, since the Colts had the No.5 seed wrapped up, nothing else to gain, and the Texans were playing for the AFC's No.1 seed.
The sharper team was Indianapolis. Rookie quarterback Luck directed the Colts 75 yards in 13 plays over 7:09 on their first possession, hitting rookie Coby Fleener with a 1-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. Luck hit rookie Dwayne Allen with a 20-yard pass on third down to keep the drive alive. That's a lot of rookies in one drive.
The Colts later scored when Luck hit rookie T.Y. Hilton, who was ruled down at the 1-yard line, and rookie Vick Ballard powered in the for the score. The Colts' final touchdown was a 70-yard strike from Luck to Hilton, the longest TD pass for Luck yet. Must have been a good draft for general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano, huh?
In retrospect, given the Colts' come-from-behind wins over Green Bay, at Tennessee and at Detroit, we should have figured they'd play their best with Pagano on the sidelines.
Pagano mentioned asking his team earlier this season, before his illness, what they wanted their legacy to be 10-20 years down the road.
“We're still writing our story because the journey continues,” Pagano said. “They've done such an unbelievable job that they got us in the playoffs and we've got another ballgame obviously to look for. I think the sky's the limit when you look at what they just did to close that thing out.”
As Pagano says, they've got their mojo working. Working with a purpose, I'd say.