INDIANAPOLIS | It could've been the Academy Awards or the Emmys, with all the pageantry and hoopla soaked up by another Lucas Oil Stadium sell-out on Sunday.
Coach Chuck Pagano, who missed 12 games while battling leukemia, was on the sidelines for the first time since September and during pregame introductions, was brought to tears by chants of CHUCK STRONG! -- the team's rallying battle cry this season.
His inspired Colts responded with a 28-16 win over the fading Houston Texans as a tuneup for next weekend's AFC wildcard game at Baltimore.
"What a day. What a day. Thank you all for your support, your thoughts, prayers. This meant the world to me," said a gaunt-looking Pagano, his hair slowly returning after several rounds of chemo.
"Just down the road (from here), I've been watching all this take place for the last 12 ballgames and when I came back, I told them there was never a doubt. I got family to take care of. I've got a wife and daughters and grandchildren that need me, so I had no choice in the matter."
The first-year coach paused briefly, his eyes misting up once again.
"It's been the same with this club," he continued. "They have faith. They have trust. They love one another. They had nothing to gain today but that's not how this group rolls. That's not their mindset.
"They refused to let anyone write their story on what they could or couldn't do."
Pagano couldn't thank interim head coach Bruce Arians enough for keeping the Colts focused and hungry, adding: "The best medicine I received was just watching them play.
"Week in and week out, it didn't matter what the score was. This team never lost two games in a row. They had a bad game and they'd come right back."
The Colts' 11-5 record featured seven fourth-quarter comeback wins, including over Green Bay and Minnesota. This marks their 12th playoff appearance since 1999 -- tops in the NFL.
"When you look at what they just did (to Houston) to close this thing out, I think the sky's the limit for our guys," Pagano said.
Houston (12-4) has now dropped three of its last four. It escaped with a 29-17 win Dec. 16 in a game the Colts felt they gave away.
In Sunday's rematch, they wasted little time grabbing the lead on rookie Andrew Luck's 1-yard pass to Colby Fleener to cap an exhausting13-play, 75-yard opening drive that consumed 7:09 and featured six first downs.
Houston led once, 16-14 in the third quarter, before Indianapolis put it away on Deji Karim's 101-yard kickoff return straight up the middle, followed by Luck's 70-yard bomb to rookie T.Y. Hilton in the fourth.
"A house call," Luck said of Karim's return.
"What a spark. He ignited us," Pagano said.
"I had faith in the 10 guys in front of me," Karim explained. "I was just runnin'. I saw all this blue in front of me and said: 'Just let me go ahead and do my thing when I get in there.'"
Luck passed for 191 yards and two touchdowns, Hilton caught four passes for 111 yards, Vic Ballard rushed for 78 yards and a score and Vontae Davis picked off Matt Schaub twice -- once in the end zone -- and set up Ballard's TD with the other.
Defensively, cornerback Cassius Vaughn and linebacker Jerrell Freeman had 10 tackles each.
Arian Foster rushed for 96 yards to lead the NFL's No. 9 offense and Andre Johnson had 12 catches for 141 yards -- but dropped a sure-thing TD in the end zone.