INDIANAPOLIS -- It all began a year ago this past weekend, it turns out, when Chuck Pagano left his team to seek cancer treatment and the Colts crawled to their locker room at halftime trailing the Green Bay Packers by 18 points. Had the shell-shocked Indianapolis team caved then, against one of the NFC's best, it would have been understandable, just as it would not have been surprising if the Seattle Seahawks' early lead this Sunday had expanded until it smothered the Colts.
"When you look in these guys' eyes, nobody flinches around here," Pagano said. "One play at a time, all you got, 60 minutes, don't judge. That's the foundation we built this thing on. We're going to take body blows. We're going to invest in body blows."
The one they delivered Sunday -- dealing the Seahawkstheir first loss of the season, 34-28 -- will resonate throughout the NFL. The Colts, for so long considered a finesse team built around a dazzling quarterback, have defeated two of the league's most physically imposing squads -- arguably two of its very best -- in San Francisco and Seattle in the span of three weeks. They again are built around a dazzling quarterback -- Andrew Luck led his ninth comeback victory in the fourth quarter or overtime in 21 regular-season games with a series of surprising scrambles and drilled passes -- but the Colts are something very much more now. They are among the league's most balanced teams and, even more startling, perhaps the second-best team in the AFC, even better than the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.
Beating the 49ers opened eyes around the league. But beating the Seahawks will widen those eyes in wonder, because it repeated an unexpected pattern. The Colts are manhandling the manhandlers. For all the deft Luck passes, the plays of the game -- the microcosms of what the Colts want to be -- came when the ball was not in Luck's hands at all.
The Seahawks trailed by just three points halfway through the fourth quarter and faced third-and-2 on their own 28-yard line. Wilson, who finished with 13 rushes for 102 yards, kept the ball for himself and ran to the left. But Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman did not allow Wilson to turn the corner, stuffing the run and forcing a punt. The Colts wound up holding the Seahawks scoreless in the quarter.
On the ensuing Colts drive, on third-and-5 from Seattle's 45, Indy did not try another pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton, who had 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Instead, Luck handed it off to Trent Richardson, whom the Coltsacquired from Cleveland in the days before the San Francisco game to give them the power-running weapon they longed for. Richardson ran for 10 yards. The Colts eventually kicked a field goal to widen their lead to 34-28.
Pagano said that at halftime -- when the Seahawks led 19-17 and the Colts had rushed for just 29 yards and allowed Seattle to roll up 267 total -- he challenged his players to draw a line in the sand. He asked them if they could run it, and to a man, Pagano said, they said yes, they could. He asked, could they tackle better? Yes, they could, the Colts responded. Pagano had told them the game would be a 15-round fight. Could they withstand it?
"I think it is a big statement for us," Richardson said. "A lot of people were trying to count us out. We were underdogs at home. We had a chip on our shoulder today. We know what we can do. Our program is built to punish people."
That is why the Colts wanted Richardson in the first place, and he talked Sunday about the relief of not walking on eggshells, of feeling like he is part of a family. Just then, Pagano walked through the locker room, stopped to greet a visitor and said with a smile: "Feel great. I'm blessed." Pagano believes no team is built better to win close games, to be able to stand in against the NFL's best teams, to take a lead and hang on. Pagano was asked what the Colts have -- besides Luck and luck -- that allows them to do that, and he ticked off what sounded like a coach's wish list: character, resilience, toughness, grit. In that way, they are a reflection of Pagano himself.
"We've got something special," he said.
It certainly has seemed that way for a year now. When the Colts fell behind 12-0 in the first quarter Sunday, after their offense couldn't get a first down, their defense couldn't stop the Seahawks and special teams gave up a blocked punt that turned into a safety, there was a brief huddling of Indy players on the sideline.
The message: "Just keep working," Luck said. "I don't think it's in the DNA of a Pagano-coached team to hang your head."
Perhaps not. But in two weeks, the Colts will try to defend their present and future against their past when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncosarrive for a game. The contest will wind around Manning's feelings about facing the team that chose to forsake him after his neck injury. Nobody on the Colts wanted to contemplate that matchup yet, not with the San Diego Chargers in the way first.
Last November, the Coltsplayed the New England Patriots in a game that was billed as a showdown between the next generation of quarterback and the greatness of the current one. The passing of the torch waited that day, as youth, and the mistakes that usually accompany it, undid Luck and the Colts. They are older now by a year, a year in which they were steeled for what awaits them against the Broncos. Manning might not be ready to pass the torch to Luck either. But the Colts surely will try to knock it from his hands.