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.
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.
Foster wound up with 16 carries for 96 yards, far less than the 165 yards he burned Indy for two weeks ago.