Chuck Pagano walked onto the field Sunday waving to the fans and hugging his wife.
He left the field hugging everybody in sight — assistant coaches, Colts players, even Texans players and coaches — before dancing in the locker room.
Andrew Luck threw for two TDs, Vick Ballard ran for another and Deji Karim scored on a 101-yard kickoff return to give the cancer-beating coach a 28-16 win over AFC South champ Houston in his return to the sideline.
Those who thought Pagano might take it easy in his first game back at the helm of the wild-card Colts since starting the first of three rounds of chemotherapy Sept. 26 were wrong.
Pagano spent the pregame warm-ups hugging friends such as offensive coordinator and former interim coach Bruce Arians, and Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. During the game, he was the same old guy. Pagano took his customary linebacker stance, hands on bended knees, signaled touchdowns when the Colts scored, patted players on their helmets and gestured for flags to be thrown. He even sprinted a few times.
Fans gave Pagano a standing ovation after a 1-minute video was shown on the stadium’s two Jumbotrons just before kickoff.
But Pagano’s players wanted to welcome back another way: with a victory celebration. Indy (11-5) did everything it needed to get it Sunday, perhaps damaging the Texans’ playoff seeding, too.
The Colts play at Baltimore in the wild-card round next weekend. The slumping Texans (12-4) have lost three of their last four and won’t know their AFC seeing until after Denver and New England finish later Sunday.
Indy prevented J.J. Watt from getting any closer to Michael Strahan’s NFL sacks record (221/2). Watt finished the season with 201/2.
Luck broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record for completions and moved into third all-time among rookies with 22 TD passes. He finished 14 of 28 for 191 yards, giving him 339 completions this season.
Of course, the Colts gave Pagano a game ball, then watched him lead an impromptu dance in the locker room, including a do-si-do with team owner Jimmy Irsay.