INDIANAPOLIS - In what will go down as the season of comebacks in the NFL, Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts have somehow managed to make MVP candidate Peyton Manning an afterthought.
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 in Pagano's first game since Sept. 26, when the first-year coach left for a medical leave of absence to undergo treatment for leukemia.
"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."
Pagano is back at the controls, with another big game ahead.
The Colts (11-5) are ticketed for the postseason and 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 Manning, and starting anew with No. 1 pick Luck.
"Last year did make you appreciate some things," Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. "This has been a great year, a storybook ending. Let's keep it going and hopefully continue to write this movie."
Pagano returned to work Monday and was back on the sideline for the first time since the last week of September.
The Colts showed a video tribute to Pagano before the kickoff, and he waved to the crowd, fighting back tears.
Pagano said he was nervous before the game, but also said he always has nerves before games.
"It's like a dream come true again," Pagano said of his return. "We talked about riding a bike. You jump back on and start pedaling."
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, who threw for 275 yards, 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. Johnson finished with 12 catches for 141 yards.
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.
In the Colts visit to the Ravens, it will be a reunion for Pagano, who was defensive coordinator in Baltimore before taking his first head-coaching job in January. Caldwell, the former Colts coach, is now offensive coordinator of the Ravens.
"Going back to Baltimore, there's some familiarity there," Pagano said. "We had four great years there. It's a top-notch organization and a great football club. It'll be a great challenge for our team."
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. ... 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.