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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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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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USA TODAY Sports

Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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Baltimore Ravens Week 6 awards after shutout win over Titans

Baltimore Ravens Week 6 awards after shutout win over Titans

The Baltimore Ravens went into the Tennessee Titans' home and completely robbed them in a 21-0 shutout win.

Here are the players and plays that stood out from the afternoon.

PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME: Ravens Defense

The Ravens defense had a historic afternoon recording a franchise-record 11 sacks. Yup, you read that right. 11 sacks.

Za'Darius Smith led the way with three, followed by Patrick Onwuasor with two and Matthew Judon, Terrell Suggs, Tony Jefferson, Kenny Young, Anthony Levine Sr. and Chris Wormley with one apiece. The 11 sacks tied for the second most by a team in league history and the most in a game since 2012.  It was so historic, the Ravens changed their Twitter name to included 11 S's. 

But that wasn't the only impressive part of the Ravens' afternoon. Marcus Mariota was limited to 10 completions and the defense allowed just 51 passing yards  —  the fewest in franchise history  — and 55 rushing yards. The Titans finished the afternoon 1-for-10 on third down as well.

With the shutout, the Ravens defense cemented its place as one of the NFL's most elite units in 2018. A win that must have been extra sweet after a 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns the week prior and with former defensive coordinator Dean Pees staring back from the opposite sideline. The Ravens remain the only NFL team to not allow a second-half touchdown this season. 

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE GAME: Michael Crabtree

After dropping what would have been the game-winning touchdown Week 5 against the Browns, Michael Crabtree said his priority this week was to get back into the lab and correct his mistakes. Out the gate, the veteran receiver stayed true to his word finishing the Ravens' first drive catching three passes for 52 yards and one touchdown. Earlier in the week, Joe Flacco had faith his receiver would get over the hump of six drops in five games and was willing to stand by him until it happened.

"Besides just trying to give him the confidence that, you know, I'm still going his way when he calls for it and I still believe that it's going to be the difference...it's something that he'll definitely get over," Flacco said.

The patience worked as Crabtree finished the day with six receptions for 93 yards and one touchdown leading all Ravens receivers.

But more importantly, the relationship between Crabtree and Flacco continues to grow.

"That’s trust. That’s what you need in football, you know," Crabtree said postgame. "Quarterback, receiver relationship. It’s only going to get better. It’s all about how much time you put in, how much work you put in. I’m new; this is my first year here so I got to do what I got to do."

STAT OF THE GAME: Flacco makes his way into the history books

With 25 completions Sunday against the Titans, Flacco became the third different quarterback in NFL history to complete 25 or more passes in nine consecutive games, per the NFL's communication department. Drew Brees sits atop the list with 11 and 10 consecutive games followed by Peyton Manning with nine. Flacco finished the 21-0 win 25-for-37 with 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

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