Facing third-and-seven with 46 seconds to play, the Colts needed a first down to close out an emotional win over the Dolphins on Sunday. Andrew Luck took the snap from under center, pivoted left and handed off to fellow rookie Vick Ballard. Spun around by the defense, Ballard stumbled backward and looked likely to come up short.
But he maintained his balance, righting his direction, and suddenly a wave of blockers was surging him forward—seven yards, then 10, then 15. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne heard the rising Lucas Oil Stadium roar, and he took a running jump onto the pile for a final four yards, the 23--20 victory in hand.
As crazy as the play was for Wayne, it pales next to what the franchise and its fans have experienced this year. Eleven months after tying for the NFL's worst record at 2--14; 10 months after the firing of G.M. Bill Polian, who guided them to two Super Bowls; eight months after releasing Peyton Manning; and five weeks after learning that their new coach, Chuck Pagano, would be leaving the team indefinitely to battle leukemia, the Colts (5--3) have the third-best record in the AFC.
"We could have easily said, 'Look, we're going to take this year off and just see what we can do,'" said safety Antoine Bethea, an Indy veteran of seven years, following Sunday's win. "But the way we talk about it in the locker room is that we're trying to get somewhere, and we want to get there this year."
The hurry is working. Sunday's win was the Colts' fourth in five games, putting them behind only the Texans (7--1) and the Ravens (6--2). It was also a touching welcome-back gift for Pagano, 52, who was in attendance for the first time since his diagnosis.
The coach addressed the team before the game, then again afterward. Lifting his ballcap to reveal hair loss from his chemotherapy treatments, he was typically energetic, his voice breathy as he talked about beating his condition so that he could dance with his two daughters at their weddings and lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy (multiple times) with his players. (On Monday that seemed a step closer to reality: Doctors announced Pagano's leukemia is in remission.)
"His presence is felt every day in the facility," says Luck. "But to see him in the flesh, to hear him speak, I think it gave all the guys a boost."
Indy has been winning with a blend of fresh ingredients and leftovers. The defense, which Pagano switched from a conservative 4--3 to a blitzing 3--4, is led by veterans like Bethea and outside linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, both converted ends. And the offense runs through Wayne (who, at age 33, is on pace for career highs in receptions and yards) and a cast of rookies: Ballard, receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight end Coby Fleener and Fleener's teammate at Stanford, the precocious Luck.
In the week leading up to the game, teammates marveled as much about Luck's toughness and accountability as they did his accuracy on the move and knack for leading comebacks. Sunday would be his fourth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, and he broke the NFL rookie record with 433 yards, completing 30 of 48 attempts with two touchdowns.
He also helped Indy convert on a staggering 13 of 19 third downs, including two through the air on the 69-yard fourth-quarter drive that resulted in Adam Vinatieri's decisive 43-yard field goal. Still, the Colts' most memorable conversion was Ballard's 19-yard surge, when the normally cool Wayne imitated a grunge singer leaping into a mosh pit.