INDIANAPOLIS - Colts coach Chuck Pagano returned to hugs, smiles and an extended ovation, and then his team made his day even better.
The Colts beat the Texans 28-16 and kept Houston from clinching the No.1 AFC seed on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was Pagano's first game since September, when he left for a medical leave of absence to undergo treatment for leukemia.
The Colts (11-5) travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens in a wildcard playoff game next weekend. While the Colts had no playoff positioning to gain with the victory, Pagano said his team signed up for a 16-game schedule and scoffed at the notion of resting his key players. The Ravens pulled several starters, including quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, early in their loss to the Bengals.
Trailing 16-14 in the third quarter, the Colts seized the lead on two big plays: a 101-yard kickoff return by Deji Karim and a 70-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton. Those two plays gave the Colts a 28-16 lead early in the fourth quarter. Luck finished 14 of 28 passing for 191 yards and two scores.
With the win, the Colts extended their home record against Houston to 11-0. The Texans' playoff seeding rested on later games involving Denver and New England. The Broncos were in line for the No.1 seed if they beat the Chiefs on Sunday.
For the Colts, it completed an incredible turnaround from a 2-14 season in 2011 that was followed by the team severing ties with most of the front office and head coach Jim Caldwell as well as several veteran players, including quarterback Peyton Manning, and starting anew with No. 1 pick Luck.
Pagano returned to work Monday and was back on the sideline for the first time since he left the team to being a treatment schedule on Sept. 26.
The Colts showed a video tribute to Pagano before the kickoff, and he waved to the crowd, fighting back tears.
Indianapolis wasted no time giving him a welcome-back drive.
Luck directed the Colts 75 yards in 13 plays over 7:09, hitting Coby Fleener with a 1-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. Luck hits Dwayne Allen with a 20-yard pass on third down to keep the drive alive.
The Colts took a 14-6 lead into halftime on a short-field drive after Vontae Davis picked off Matt Schaub's deep pass and returned it 26 yards. Luck hit T.Y. Hilton with a key pass and Vick Ballard scored from the 1-yard line with two minutes left in the half.
Davis later picked off another Schaub pass on a throw to the end zone intended for Andre Johnson.
The Texans generated only two field goals in the first half, with Shayne Graham hitting from 51 and 37 yards.
Trailing 14-6 at the half, the Texans drove 84 yards on their first drive of the second half and Arian Foster scored on a 13-yard run to trim the Colts' lead to 14-13. Schaub completed three passes to Andre Johnson on the drive, and Johnson drew a defensive holding call to keep the drive alive. Johnson also had a drop on a would-be touchdown catch in the drive.
After forcing the Colts to punt, Houston took a 16-14 lead on a Shayne Graham 37-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the third quarter.
The Colts immediately took the lead back on Karim's touchdown return.
NOTES: Luck finished the season with the NFL record for passing yards by a rookie and broke the team record for most completions in a season. His 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton was the longest of his career. ... Deji Karim's 101-yard touchdown run for the Colts was a record since the team moved to Indianapolis. It tied for fourth in franchise history. ...Texans defense end J.J. Watt finished with 20.5 sacks, two short of tying Michael Strahan's single-season record.