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Pagano returns as Indianapolis beats Texans 28-16

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Pagano returns as Indianapolis beats Texans 28-16

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Chuck Pagano just wanted to savor the moments Sunday.

He waved to the fans, hugged his family, his players, assistant coaches even the Houston Texans. And when the Colts completed their remarkable regular season with a 28-16 victory over the AFC South champion, there was no holding back the joy in the locker room.

``Everybody was dancing. Just not taking anything for granted,'' Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis said. ``The small things in life mean the most.''

There was nothing small about this win.

Only two teams - the 2008 Dolphins and the 1999 Colts - produced 10-win turnarounds. On Sunday, the Colts (11-5) joined the next-best group with a nine-win improvement.

Indy now heads to back to its old hometown, Baltimore, for a wild-card game next weekend. And although they were locked into the No. 5 playoff spot before Sunday's game, Pagano decided to play all of his healthy starters the entire game.

Those guys, who won nine times under offensive coordinator and former interim coach Bruce Arians, just wanted one more to help Pagano celebrate his first sideline appearance since Sept. 23. Three days later, he took an indefinite leave from the team to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy. The cancer is now in complete remission and last week, Pagano's oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, gave him medical clearance to return to his old job.

On Sunday, he was back celebrating.

``What a day. What a day,'' Pagano said full of the same kind of emotion that resonated throughout the stadium, the locker room and even on the Texans' sideline.

In pregame warm-ups, Pagano hugged Arians, shook hands with general manager Ryan Grigson and spoke for several minutes with Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

During the game, Arian Foster celebrated his 13-yard TD run to make it 14-13 in the third quarter, tapping the (hash)Chuckstrong sign hanging on the wall in the back of the end zone.

After the game, Pagano shared a hug with Phillips and several Texans players, got an encouraging message from Texans coach Gary Kubiak and then jogged to the locker room where players and coaches danced and chanted, and Pagano did a do-si-do with team owner Jim Irsay.

``It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all of the cameras flashing when he walked out,'' Andrew Luck said. ``I think that was sort of a lift that he gave us, it was energy. Just to have his physical presence and seeing him on sideline was great.''

For the Texas (12-4), it was a debacle.

They blew a second chance to clinch home-field advantage. A few hours later, courtesy of Denver and New England wins, they also lost a first-round bye pushing the team that held the AFC's top playoff seed all season down to No. 3.

The good news is that they'll have a home game against Cincinnati. The bad news: They must play next week and head into the playoffs with three losses in their last four games.

``In this league you play some good teams and you don't play good, you're going to get beat,'' Kubiak said. ``You've got to handle it like a man and move on but we're very capable of flipping it back the other way, too, and that's what I'm going to focus on.''

Kubiak has plenty to fix.

Vontae Davis picked off Matt Schaub twice. Schaub was 24 of 36 for 275 yards.

Foster wound up with 16 carries for 96 yards, far less than the 165 yards he burned Indy for two weeks ago.

Deji Karim scored on a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the longest in the Colts' Indy era. Karim's score came just 12 seconds after Houston had taken its only lead of the day.

The defense not only allowed the Colts to convert a third-and-23, but they also gave up a 70-yard TD pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton on the play. That put Houston in a 28-16 hole that they couldn't climb out of.

Indy also ran out the final 9:46 on its last possession, and kept defensive menace J.J. Watt out of reach of the NFL's single-season sacks record. Watt finished with zero sacks Sunday, 20 1/2 this season and two short of Michael Strahan's mark.

But the only thing that really mattered to Houston was another loss. The Texans are now 0-11 all-time at Indy.

``It's just not a good feeling,'' Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson said after catching 12 passes for 141 yards. ``You go out there and you play to win. We wanted to win and we didn't win. That's pretty much it.''

The Colts, meanwhile, head into the playoffs with wins in four of their last five games and with a team that has continued to find ways to win even when Luck hasn't played his best ball.

Luck was just 14 of 28 for 191 yards, throwing for two scores. He broke Peyton Manning's franchise rookie record for completions on the game's first series, finishing with 339, 15 short of Sam Bradford's NFL mark. With 22 TD passes this season, he also passed Charlie Connerly for third on the NFL's rookie TD list.

It didn't take long for the Colts to assert themselves in this emotional environment - or to swing the game in their direction after Shayne Graham made a 37-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the third quarter.

Karim fielded the ensuing kickoff a yard deep in the end zone, found a seam in the middle of the field and never slowed until he reached the opposite end zone to make it 21-16.

Then, after being held without a first down in the third quarter, Luck changed that in the blink of an eye with a nifty pass that got just beyond the hands of a defender. Hilton hauled it in raced in for the score to make it 28-16, setting off another wild postgame party.

``I think any time you have a chance to celebrate a season like this, and it's going to continue on, but to complete the regular season and win 11 ball games and the faith and belief and trust that every man in that locker room had, it was just another way for them to express themselves,'' Pagano said after being handed a game ball by Irsay. ``There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of hugging, a lot of dancing going on and a lot of celebrating. There are a lot of things to celebrate right now.''

NOTES: Johnson joined former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison as the only players in league history with three seasons of 100 or more catches and 1,500 or more yards. ... Watt had a shared sack taken away in the first half when the officials erased a sack-fumble of Luck because of the Tuck Rule. ... The Colts lost starting guard Joe Reitz in the first half with a head injury. ... Houston linebacker Daryl Sharpton left the game with a hip injury. Linebacker Tim Dobbins left in the second half with what Kubiak thought was a shoulder injury.

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Lightning

After a rough start, the Caps battled back to make a game of it against Tampa Bay, but ultimately fell 4-2 to the Lightning. Here's why.

The first period

To put it simply, this game was lost in the opening period. Washington was the better team for the second and third but they could not overcome the 3-0 lead they spotted the Lightning in the first. Beyond the goals, the Caps just did not play well. Even the simplest of plays looked difficult as Washington struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, gave up numerous turnovers and scoring chances and just looked overmatched. Braden Holtby also looked shaky allowing three goals on just eight shots. Usually he is able to cover up some of the mistakes the defense makes it front of him, but he was not there to bail the team out on Tuesday in what was a really rocky start.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-LIGHTNING

Taking a penalty 34 seconds into the game

Entering Tuesday’s game, Tampa Bay boasted the second best power play unit in the league. Playing a disciplined game is part of every game plan, but that is especially true against such a dominant unit. Giving up a penalty just 34 seconds into the game was not an ideal start. The call itself was debatable. Brett Connolly was called for interference when he knocked over Dan Girardi in the offensive zone. The puck was just behind Girardi as he had lost control of it in his skates. The sticking point here is that Girardi no longer had possession and Connolly could have played the puck instead of the player. Most referees would probably let that go with the puck so close, but Connolly was not so lucky. Whether it was a good call or not, the Caps found themselves down a man and down a goal soon after as Brayden Point scored the power play tally.

A missed opportunity from Kuznetsov on one end, a goal for Nikita Kucherov on the other

Even after spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead, the Caps made a game of it. Lars Eller struck on the power play in the second period and Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington to within one with about nine minutes left to play. Just over a minute later, Evgeny Kuznetsov stole the puck away from Nikita Kucherov, the frontrunner for league MVP this season, at the Tampa blue line giving the Caps a short 2-on-1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr was textbook on the play forcing Kuznetsov as far wide as he could go while still covering the passing lane and Kuznetsov elected to shoot from the faceoff dot rather than attempt the pass to T.J. Oshie.Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine blocker save to deny what looked like a great opportunity to tie the game. As always happens in hockey, a failed opportunity on one end led to an opportunity in the other direction. Less than a minute later, Kucherov made up for his mistake by scoring a breakaway goal to put the game out of reach at 4-2.

MORE CAPITALS: KEMPNY EXCITED TO MOVE FROM LAST PLACE CHICAGO TO FIRST PLACE WASHINGTON

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3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

3 stars of the game: Lightning strike 3 times in the first to burn Caps

The first 20 minutes of Tuesday's game did not go well for Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning scored three times in the opening frame and rode that lead all the way to the 4-2 win.

With the game heading towards a repeat of their blowout loss to Chicago, the Capitals rebounded in the second period to make a game of it as Lars Eller scored on a power play. Alex Ovechkin pulled Washington within one in the third period, but Nikita Kucherov slammed the door shut with a breakaway goal to extend the lead back to 2.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Brayden Point: Tampa Bay won this game in the first period when they took a 3-0 lead. Point scored two of those three goals. His first came only 2:30 into the game. He retreated to the blue line on the power play believing Jay Beagle would clear the puck. When Beagle turned the puck over, he recognized it and immediately crashed the net, taking a Ryan Callahan pass in the slot and shooting it through the five-hole of Braden Holtby.

On his second goal, Anton Stralman saw an opportunity on the Caps’ line change and passed the puck up to Point at the blue line. Point turned on the jets to get behind the defense and went five-hole again on Holtby to make the score 3-0.

2. Alex Ovechkin: After the first period, Washington slowly took this game over for much of the remaining 40 minutes. Ovechkin was a big part of that as he totaled an incredible 19 shot attempts for the game. Nine of those shots were on goal and he found the back of the net in the third period for career goal No. 594.

3. Tom Wilson: Through the first period, the Caps looked well on their way to a repeat of the 7-1 debacle they suffered Saturday in Chicago. They had nothing going in this game until Wilson drew a trip from Vladislav Namestnikov in the second period. Eller would score on the resulting power play giving Washington some much-needed life.

The Namestnikov penalty was the 29th drawn penalty of the season for Wilson, which moves him into a tie with Matthew Tkachuk for the most drawn penalties in the NHL.