All of those moments and more highlighted the Colts' 34-28 win over the Seahawks on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Yet I left marveling most at the Colts' knack for maintaining poise and togetherness when everything's going wrong.
What turns a locker room from its basic building blocks of a bunch of professional athletes to a cohesive team capable of defying odds? What makes the Colts (4-1) able to come back from any type of adversity, such as their out-of-sync, uninspired start against Seattle?
What makes this group of players believe in each other? They say they're family, and we know that's a sports cliché stretch, yet the Colts come as close to that ideal as any NFL team.
Their togetherness isn't due entirely to winning, although that helps. It isn't just the coach's inspirational leadership, although Chuck Pagano has more credibility than most, given his winning battle against cancer last season. Getting 53 players to buy in, and buy in at all times, requires something that can't be printed on the post-game stats page.
“Like coach says, we throw our egos aside,” Freeman said, “and we go out and work for each other.”
Let's be honest. Some of the biggest egos reside in the NFL. The sport is our national obsession and we build up players to be larger than life. We spent the week hyping Luck vs. Wilson, a showdown of second-year signal-callers that, incidentally, lived up to the hype. We, the media, blow up the individuals much more than the teams.
So it's easy for a locker room to be full of personal agendas and selfish aspirations and the antithesis of togetherness.
Yet the Colts can stare at a 12-0 deficit that included a blocked punt for a safety, missed tackles, botched pass plays and general listlessness and flush the negativity. All it seemed to take was two big moments – Luck's 73-yard touchdown pass to Hilton and Delano Howell's 61-yard touchdown return off Guy's field-goal block – to pull everyone back together.
“This is the most resilient team that I've ever been around,” Pagano said. “They've got more grit than anybody, any team that I've ever been around.”
Pagano can go on and on when it comes to his players and their resolve and what they mean to him. There's a connection, certainly, with Pagano and the Colts who were around last season during his tough times. It's even more impressive that so many free agents have bought into the Colts' culture, guys who weren't around last season to have that bond.
What's the secret to the Colts' ability to not only stay together, but to come back from the early deficit, a 19-17 halftime deficit and a 28-23 third-quarter deficit? They had trouble with Wilson (102 yards rushing, 210 passing with two touchdowns). They had trouble with Marshawn Lynch (102 yards rushing). They kept bouncing back.
Pagano took out his laundry list of reasons why.
“Character, resiliency, toughness, grit, never quit, belief, faith,” Pagano said. “I don't know what else I can say, other than these guys, we've got something special.”
There's no better example of buying into the team concept, and embracing the bigger picture, than running back Donald Brown. Once seen as the future of the running back position when he was drafted in the first round as a successor to Joseph Addai, he began this season as a third-string back playing special teams.
Sunday, Brown scored the touchdown that put the Colts ahead to stay, 29-28 with 8:55 left. The lead was pushed to 31-28 on a great Luck-to-Wayne two-point conversion and then 34-28 on a final Adam Vinatieri field goal.
“When (Brown) gets his opportunity, he shows up big,” Wayne said. “He doesn't make noise or complain. Whenever he gets in the game, he makes it happen. He could easily say, 'What the hell, I give up' but he keeps playing. He's a true professional.”
Perhaps it's those two words – true professional – that capture what separates this Colts team. They're full of players like that, players that care about their careers, of course, but also buy into the idea of team first.
It's why Wayne owns up to running the wrong route on a catch that set up Brown's winning touchdown – a catch where Wayne stepped in front of teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey to make the play. Heyward-Bey might have scored a touchdown. “I owe him a fruit basket,” Wayne said playfully before later upgrading it to a dinner.
True professionals combine two assets – talent and character.
The talent is easy to spot, watching Wayne make incredible catches, Luck deliver perfect passes and Robert Mathis and friends defy fatigue to close in on Wilson late in the game. Check the stats and you'll find Luck's 229 yards passing, Hilton's 140 yards receiving and Freeman's 13 tackles.
Character and resolve can be trickier to pinpoint, but those were the keys to shaking off the bad start, to Freeman tracking down Wilson and Golden Tate for big tackles late, and to Trent Richardson grinding out a huge 10-yard gain when the Colts were milking the fourth-quarter clock.
You can't buy character or resolve. You can't quantify either one. But you know it when you see it. Just follow the horseshoe.