INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Irsay raced out of a joyous locker room and ducked into a waiting car surrounded by security. Under his arm, the Indianapolis Colts owner held a football, gripping it as tightly as receiver Reggie Wayne gripped that final touchdown grab with 35 seconds to go. With the celebration ongoing at Lucas Oil Stadium, Irsay had a better place to be: The IU Health Simon Cancer Center, where Chuck Pagano awaited.
"This ball is going right down the street to the hospital," Irsay had shouted to a delirious locker room a few minutes before he darted off.
And so Irsay went, off to deliver the game ball to Pagano following a thrilling 30-27 win over the Green Bay Packers in front of more than 67,000 fans. The coach had checked into the hospital on Sept. 26 following a diagnosis for acute promyelocytic leukemia, leaving the team he loves for several weeks to wage the fight of his life.
But Pagano never completely left the game, watching practice film on an iPad from his hospital bed and regularly consulting with interim coach Bruce Arians. After this one, which rookie quarterback Andrew Luck (31 of 55 for 362 yards and two touchdowns with one interception) capped by finding Wayne with Packers defenders draped all over him, the Colts returned to him.
With the ball.
"I know he's (Pagano) happy right now," Luck told NFL.com. "I'm sure he probably was stressful during the game, it was too strenuous, but hopefully this makes up for it. He deserves it, he's been a great leader, he's a great man, we love him in the locker room. We miss him with all our heart. But we know he's fighting. If this can uplift him, that's a good day."
Consider him uplifted. Pagano had done as much for the players, firing off an emotional email during the week to every one of them. Arians read it to the team on Saturday morning. Among Pagano's many messages were these strong words: "WE WILL, WE CAN, WE MUST. WE HAVE NO CHOICE. BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. WE WILL OVERCOME."
They did. Even against the vaunted Packers. Even with a home crowd tainted with so many cheeseheads that chants of "Go Pack go" could be heard loud and clear. And even after they went down 21-3 in the second quarter following quarterback Aaron Rodgers' dart to Randall Cobb that sprung him from 31 yards out.
Players wondered all week how they would handle the emotion. Arians wished for no "snot bubbles and tears," saying he didn't want players to press too much. He didn't want it all to be too big for them. It wasn't.
"We got together at halftime, there was no panic," Arians said. "It was just 'This is what we have to do and let's get it done.' "
When it all seemed lost, players admitted they did think of Pagano.
"I know Chuck was in that room coaching, telling us what to do, yelling at us," said Dwight Freeney, who had a sack despite playing on an injured ankle. "I know he was very much a part of this game. He's a part of us. He's a part of this family. You have moments where you think about it, where it's like, 'We're really going to win this one for you, wish you were here. But we'll fight here, you fight where you're at.' "
How could it not weigh on their minds? Players arrived at the game wearing shirts that proclaimed they were "Chuckstrong," raising awareness for leukemia research. Even Green Bay players honored Pagano by wearing similar T-shirts, but in their colors. The team that left the light on in Pagano's office all week -- a sign that he'll be returning -- also set up his stadium office the same as always. They even laid out his favorite candy. Arians doesn't consider himself head coach; he's merely keeping the spot warm for Pagano.
Wayne, who has known Pagano for 16 years, found out orange was the official color of leukemia, so he had Colts equipment managers find orange gloves to wear. Then he went out and set a career high with 212 yards receiving on 13 catches using those same gloves.
"I said to myself I was going to lay it all out on the line," Wayne said. "They were going to have to carry me off, the old (Kellen) Winslow Sr., give everything I had. As a team, we were able to just keep fighting, fighting, fighting and fighting. It was collective effort for everybody that was able to find a way and we got it done."
It took all 60 minutes. Down 21-3 at halftime, a sweet interception by Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers of a Rodgers pass intended for receiver James Jones put the ball on the Green Bay 39. Luck fit the ball into the arms of tight end Dwayne Allen to cut it to 11. A glimmer.
"We didn't draw up nothing different, we didn't do no exotic stuff, we just said, 'You know what? Enough is e-freakin-nough,' " relayed defensive end Cory Redding. "Put our foot down and let's go after this ball and make them beat us."
An Adam Vinatieri 50-yard field goal made it 21-13 heading into the fourth quarter, and Packers kicker Mason Crosby followed that up by missing a 52-yarder. Suddenly, the Packers' offense was sputtering, while the Colts' pass rush was making noise. Luck ran it in from three yards out to cut the lead to two, though the Colts couldn't convert the ensuing two-point attempt. Midway through the fourth, Vinatieri drilled a 28-yarder to earn the Colts a lead, 22-21.
All that did was spur on Rodgers, who drove his team 74 yards before finding Jones from eight yards out to make it 27-22. Luck took over with 4:30 to go and the ball on the 20.
Then came what Arians called, "The storybook ending." Luck to Wayne for 15. Luck to Coby Fleener for seven. Twelve more for Wayne. Two plays later, it was Luck to Wayne for 15. Then 18. Of course, on first-and-goal from the 4, it was Luck to Wayne for the clincher to launch pandemonium, with Wayne battling defenders and stretching the ball across the goal line.
"You can picture him (Pagano) with a big smile on his face in the hospital bed," offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo said. "That means a ton to us."
And so Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson and company ended up in Pagano's hospital room, presenting the coach ball with the game ball. It was everything they had hoped it would be.
"We walked in," Irsay told the Indianapolis Star, "(Pagano) got up, we all embraced and shed some tears and Chuck said, 'You know, I don't feel so sick right now.' "
What else is going on? Here's a rundown:
1) Football players are people, too
Kudos to Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Winston for serving as the voice of reason. Kudos for informing so many of us of what we often forget. People play these games, not robots. Winston lashed out at fans who cheered the concussion suffered by Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel, one that led Cassel to the bench and called on backup Brady Quinn. Yes, Cassel has been miserable as a starter. Yes, Quinn was a breath of fresh air in what eventually became a 9-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But cheering an injury? Celebrating a concussion? That's as lame as it comes, and Winston said so.
"When you cheer, when you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don't care who it is, and it just so happened to be Matt Cassel, it's sickening," Winston told reporters after the game. "It's 100 percent sickening. I've been in some rough times on some rough teams, I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there."
The new, tougher Patriots showed up on Sunday in the 13th installment of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, a 31-21 New England victory. And in doing so, they offered one of the scariest realities for opponents. No longer can teams put out their nickel and dime defenses, protect against the pass and dare the Pats to run it. As quarterback Tom Brady said after the game, "When they put little guys out there, we take advantage of it." The Patriots rushed it 54 times against the Broncos, possessing the ball for more than 35 minutes. Stevan Ridley had 28 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis II (otherwise known as Brandon Bolden) had 14 carries for 54 yards. Brady, the future Hall of Famer, threw it just 31 times.
How can you defend that? The Patriots offer opponents the most difficult of scenarios. You have to play them straight up. You can't simply put your sub packages on the field. And you don't want to play base against Brady, either. That's dangerous when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has every option available.
3) Poor Buffalo
How does it all go so wrong so often? How do they break the bank on Mario Williams and wind up with a dud -- injured wrist or not? How do they convince us they upgraded their defense, only to make San Francisco's Alex Smith look like Drew Brees or Brady or Manning? It makes you think twice about ever having any optimism about them. Not when they give up more than 550 yards in back-to-back weeks. Not when they become the first team in NFL history to allow an opponent 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing in the same game. That's failing in every way.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» It seems like only a few months ago Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin was complaining about his role, hoping to be traded. The Vikings response was, "OK, let's have him do everything." Is there a more valuable non-quarterback in the league right now? His two scores in a blowout win over the Tennessee Titans help make the case for him.
» We spent so much time and energy focusing on the return of Pittsburgh Steelers defenders James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, we nearly forgot one other key cog coming back into the fold. Rashard Mendenhall looked as fast as ever Sunday, amassing 101 yards on 16 touches with a score. No, Pittsburgh wasn't perfect. But at least they were balanced.
» Speaking of the Steelers, they beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 16-14, despite an efficient, stellar game by Michael Vick -- if only you could excuse the fumbles. Isn't it always this way? If Vick weren't doing so many other things well -- which he is -- it would be easier to dismiss him. But you need the ball in his hands, because he'll tighten it up sooner or later ... right?
» Robert Griffin III is learning the hard way: When the sidelines are near, step out. You are way more valuable than a few yards.
» There's no way Tony Gonzalez is 36. The 16th-year pro hauled in 13 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown to help guide the perfect Atlanta Falcons past the Washington Redskins, 24-17.
» Peyton Manning might not be himself physically, but he still gives me that feeling that his team has a chance in every single game.