INDIANAPOLIS — It was the most incredible play of the most amazing game in Andrew Luck’s brief professional football career.
With the Indianapolis Colts trailing by 10 points and lining up for a second-and-goal at the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2-yard line, Luck turned to hand the ball off to running back Donald Brown. Shortly after the exchange, Brown lost his grip, and the ball wiggled free.
It first bounced off center Samson Satele, then fell to the ground. Second-year wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was watching the play unfold from the perimeter and couldn’t believe his eyes.
Then he saw Luck come up with the football.
“That play was crazy,” Hilton said. “When the ball was fumbled, I said, ‘OK, man, somebody get it.’ Once I saw Andrew got it, I said, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna tackle him.’”
Luck barreled forward 5 yards into the end zone, extending the football to nearly the full length of his arm into the end zone, and the Colts’ comeback felt real.
More than six minutes of game time later, Hilton made an even bigger play to give Indianapolis its first — and only — lead, and the Colts completed the biggest come-from-behind playoff victory in franchise history, erasing a 28-point deficit and beating the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“They can measure a lot of things at the NFL (Scouting) Combine,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. “But the one thing they can’t measure is a man’s heart. These guys have more heart and grit than anybody I’ve ever been around.”
The remarkable rally brought back memories of former Indianapolis assistant coach Frank Reich leading the Buffalo Bills to a 35-point comeback against the Houston Oilers in a 1993 AFC Wild Card playoff game.
With Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith in the midst of a 30-for-46, 378-yard, four-touchdown, no-interception performance and the Chiefs leading 38-10 early in the third quarter, however, few believed the Colts were about to make history in any positive way.
The comeback started quietly, with a 10-yard touchdown run by Donald Brown. But it picked up steam when Robert Mathis did what he does best.
The NFL’s season sacks champion stripped Smith on a scramble at Indianapolis’ 46-yard line. Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard eventually came up with the loose ball at the Chiefs’ 41, and Luck took advantage six plays later with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Brown.
The momentum seemed to die after the defense forced a punt, and Luck threw this third interception of the game after taking over at his own 28-yard line.
“I really felt like I was letting the team down,” Luck said. “... So I was angry. But you’ve gotta flush it, you’ve gotta forget about it.”
The defense held, and Kansas City added a 42-yard Ryan Succop field goal to move in front 41-24 with 4:12 left in the third quarter.
Luck — who finished 29-of-45 for 443 yards with four touchdowns and three picks — quickly atoned. He led a six-play, 81-yard scoring drive that ended with a 12-yard pass to Coby Fleener and cut the deficit to 10 points entering the final quarter.
Luck’s fumble recovery capped a 12-play, 90-yard drive and made it a three-point game with 10:45 remaining.
Kansas City answered with a 43-yard field goal to push its advantage back to 44-38, and Indianapolis took possession at its own 20-yard line with 5:36 to play.
Before the team took the field, Pagano had a special message for Hilton.
“Go win this game for us,” he told the receiver.
Four plays later, Hilton did just that. The last of his franchise playoff-record 13 receptions and 224 yards came after he sprinted past Quintin Demps and Kendrick Lewis in the Kansas City defensive backfield. Luck hit Hilton perfectly in stride, and the receiver ran untouched for a 64-yard touchdown.
Adam Vinatieri’s extra point provided the Colts with their first — and only — lead of the game.
“You don’t need anything special,” Luck said of the team’s mentality in the second half. “There is no 28-point score. It takes good plays to get down there (in the end zone), and guys stepped up. Everybody stepped up.”
Kansas City had one drive to answer, starting at their own 20 with 4:21 to play and no timeouts remaining. Smith got the Chiefs to midfield with two passes, but his intentional grounding penalty under pressure from Mathis brought up third-and-17 at the Colts’ 49.
A 6-yard completion to Dexter McCluster brought the game to the two-minute warning. On fourth-and-11, Smith found wide receiver Dwayne Bowe streaking down the right sideline, but the ball was caught with both feet out of bounds.
Luck took over at his own 43-yard line with 1:55 to play and kneeled on three straight snaps to send the crowd into hysterics.
The Colts will play either Denver or New England in next week’s divisional round.
If Cincinnati beats San Diego today, Indianapolis travels to Denver next Sunday. If the Chargers win, the next game will be played in New England on Saturday night.
For a while, at least, the Colts will forget all of that and simply cherish a victory for the ages.
“Twenty-one wasn’t enough at the half so we thought we’d give them another seven just to make it interesting,” Pagano said, referring to the Chiefs’ 31-10 halftime lead. “It looked bleak at times, but our guys, they never stopped playing.”