By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
The Colts were a nice little story six weeks ago.
That's when a team that started 1-2 and had "rebuilding" written all over it responded to the loss of rookie coach Chuck Pagano with one of those how-did-they-do-it winning streaks — and that was supposed to be that. Considering the Colts finished 2-14 a year ago, then said goodbye to Peyton Manning and turned the rest of the roster upside-down, the season was already a success.
Fans in Indianapolis knew can't-miss rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was bound to improve, but explaining the 4-1 run after Pagano left the team to deal with leukemia was tough enough, especially because there was precious little room elsewhere for improvement. The Colts still can't run the ball, and they still start rookies at nearly every one of the skill positions. The defense? Don't ask.
Yet the story just got better.
Indianapolis was outgained by more than 200 yards Sunday in Kansas City. The Colts lost the time-of-possession battle but still won 20-13 and locked up an improbable playoff spot.
"Mission accomplished," Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said, as though he expected as much. "That's all I can say. It's a fantastic feeling."
And the story is about to get better still.
Pagano has been cleared to return, perhaps as early as Monday. He might have been the only guy in the entire organization who was expecting great things when he took over, but an entire squad and staff have come over to his side in his absence.
Arians, who stepped in for his close pal and consulted Pagano throughout his ordeal, is a candidate for coach of the year. And Luck, who threw for a modest 205 yards and a touchdown, still made up a lot of ground in his race against similarly impressive first-year quarterback starters Robert Griffin III of Washington and Russell Wilson of Seattle because of something he didn't do — throw a costly interception.
Even the much-maligned defense got into the act, with Darius Butler picking off Brady Quinn's pass and returning it for a touchdown five plays into the game, and whole unit rising up to stuff Quinn on a quarterback sneak late in the game, turning the ball back over to Luck in time for a rookie-record seventh winning drive.
"Whenever teams go for it on fourth down, the defense takes it personal," Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney said.
If the defensive stand was a surprise, what Luck did with the opportunity wasn't. The Colts' running game is still little more than a chance for Luck to catch his breath, and despite the emergence of receivers T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen, just about everybody in Arrowhead Stadium was looking at veteran wideout Reggie Wayne. So was Luck, who saw him cut through a seam in the middle of the defense, then fired a high, hard pass that Wayne latched onto in the end zone for a 7-yard score.
Luck owns the rookie records for most yards, most 300-yard games, most winning drives, and the strike to Wayne put him closer to the rookie record of 26 touchdown passes set by none other than Manning. And just like Manning, to whom Luck was often compared before the season, the rookie knew exactly what to say about all of them.
"I think it definitely means something. After the season I'll have a chance to reflect back on it. Obviously, it is nicer to be in the playoffs and know that," Luck said, "but it is nice to have a couple records that I'm sure will be broken in the next year."
What he said next, though, came as something of a surprise.
"I think we were confident in the locker room from day one. I remember going in, trying to gauge the feel of what it was going to be like. Guys were confident on this team, like Reggie Wayne who had never missed a playoff until that year. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, those guys are winners, they know how to win, so I think they imparted some of that magic, if you will, on some of the younger guys, the newer guys.
"It was a confident bunch, we never prepared to lose a game, we always prepared to win, and I guess that worked out."
It's still a mystery exactly how, but Luck wasn't going to spend much more time dwelling on that than he did on accumulating records.
"I guess it will be an extra special Christmas," he said, referring to Pagano's return. "There will be a lot of emotions when he comes through the door. It's funny, there are probably 10 guys who have never met Chuck on the team, but I think they will be emotional too because I'm sure they feel like they know him, too, because his presence is felt so much in the building out here, and wherever we go."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke