INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colts owner Jim Irsay walked into a locker room packed with big men full of powerful emotions.
The Colts’ stunning 30-27 come-from-behind victory over Green Bay on Sunday had just set off a wild sideline celebration. A few moments later, reflective players were contemplating what it all meant.
On a day that Andrew Luck threw for a career-high 362 yards and veteran receiver Reggie Wayne hauled in a 4-yard TD pass with 35 seconds left to beat the Packers, the Colts’ postgame thoughts were all on the man who wasn’t there to enjoy it with them, head coach Chuck Pagano.
“Men, I’ve never been so proud of a group of guys that came together. We know what kind of man we have down the street, fighting, fighting for his life, and winning the fight,” Irsay said with a sniffle as his somber players listened intently. “You guys doing this today, Bruce (Arians) coming in, all you guys pulling together, Reggie being so close to Chuck going back for so long, everyone in here knows how much that this means, and this ball is going right down the street.”
Players roared with approval after the toughest week Indy (2-2) has endured this season.
Last Monday, the Colts learned Pagano had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia, an illness that will keep him in the hospital for six to eight weeks as undergoes treatment. Arians, the offensive coordinator, immediately became interim coach, and Irsay quickly established the goal for this week — winning so he could personally deliver a game ball to Pagano at the hospital.
All week, Arians tried to downplay the quest.
All week, players insisted that’s what they would, especially after Pagano sent his touching email request to the team Friday.
But after the game ended, it was obvious that part of it was all talk.
Arians acknowledged he was trying to hold back his own tears when he spoke with reporters.
From the sounds of it, so were Wayne and Luck.
“I’m sure we were all lying to everybody the whole week,” Luck said as his voice cracked. “I think we all went out there wanting to do it for Chuck more than anything else. To see all the emotions on Mr. Irsay’s face, B.A.’s face, everyone in there, I think it’s one of the greatest athletic moments I’ve ever been a part of.”
Who could argue?
A listless first half left the Colts staring at a 21-3 deficit, so at halftime, the Colts challenged themselves to play the way Pagano wanted.
Luck responded by outperforming reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers in the second half. Luck finished 31 of 55 with two touchdowns and one interception, ran for another score and converted three third-downs on the decisive drive compared with Rodgers, who was 21 of 33 for 243 yards with three TDs and one pick.
Wayne delivered another clutch performance, catching 13 passes for a career-high 212 yards, including five for 64 yards on the Colts’ winning drive. The only Colts player to finish with more yards receiving in a game was Hall of Famer Raymond Berry, who had 224 yards against Washington in November 1957. Wayne also wore orange gloves, because that is the color to support leukemia patients.
And Pagano’s hand-picked defense stymied the Packers’ usually high-scoring offense, giving up only one second-half score — an 8-yard TD pass from Rodgers to James Jones with 4:30 left in the game.
Players figured Pagano, who was expected to watch the game on television, couldn’t have been prouder.
“Our coach is tough, hard-nosed, a blue-collar kind of guy,” defensive end Cory Redding. “No matter what’s going on, don’t blink. Don’t ask ‘Why?’ say ‘Why not?’ That’s the kind of guy he is, and that’s the kind of reflection we have as a team.”
Green Bay (2-3) still moved into position to force overtime. But Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal attempt sailed right with 3 seconds to go, setting off an emotional celebration on the Colts sideline.
“I thought they (Colts) played well,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously, a tough week for them. I thought they played with a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. Frankly, I’m more focused on my football team and my football team is not playing the way we are capable of playing.”
No, these are not the same Packers that spent most of last season chasing perfection and a second straight Super Bowl title.
Indy’s remarkable second-half dominance made that perfectly clear.
Luck threw an 8-yard TD pass to Dwayne Allen and set up Adam Vinatieri for a 50-yard field goal to make it 21-13 midway through the third quarter. Luck then scored on a 3-yard run with 18 seconds left in the third quarter to get the Colts within 21-19.
A few minutes later, Vinatieri hit a 28-yard field goal to give Indy its first lead, 22-21.
But Rodgers quickly got Green Bay’s offense back in sync.
Alex Green ran 41 yards on the Packers’ first play, and Rodgers hooked up with Jones on the next play to give the Packers a 27-20 lead with 4:30 left.
All the Packers had to do was stop Luck one more time to clinch it.
But Luck and Wayne wouldn’t allow it.
With the clock ticking down and anxious fans hoping and praying they could get this win for Pagano, Luck converted two third-down passes to Wayne, then scrambled for a third third-down conversion before, fittingly, spotting Wayne for the go-ahead score.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys in all my life than I am of you guys right now. He (Pagano) was helping. Everybody was helping. Everybody was helping. He was coaching his (butt) off,” Arians said, drawing laughter. “We did it for him. Boss, you’ve got it.”
NOTES: The Packers lost three starters during the game — running back Cedric Benson (ankle), defensive tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (right shoulder). McCarthy did not have immediate updates after the game. … Colts defensive end Robert Mathis left with a knee sprain and did not return after trying on a brace. … Wayne now has catches in 100 consecutive games and passed college and pro teammate Edgerrin James for No. 2 on the Colts career list for yards from scrimmage. … Packers receiver Donald Driver played in his 197th career game Sunday, breaking a tie with Bart Starr for second in team history.
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