By Michael Marot
The Associated Press
Indianapolis Colts interim coach Bruce Arians wanted to send Chuck Pagano home with a smile Sunday.
T.Y. Hilton made sure he was grinning from ear to ear.
Indy's other emerging rookie star returned a punt 75 yards for one touchdown, caught an 8-yard TD pass in the third quarter, became the first player in franchise to do both in the same game and led the Colts to a critical 20-13 victory over Buffalo.
"That surprises nobody on this team and that's what he's paid to do," Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said. "I'm excited for every one of these guys when they make a big play. Everybody on this team, their futures are so bright. I'm just glad to be part of it."
The Colts (7-4) are certainly happy that Hilton is part of it, too.
He came into Sunday's game with three 100-yard days, and showed he's got more than just flash to his game. He's tough, too.
After returning the first punt for a score, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound receiver took a vicious high-low combination hit on his second punt — a hit that left Hilton holding his head with both hands and fans breathless as he lay motionless on the ground for several minutes. A few minutes later, Hilton was cheered as he walked off gingerly under his own power. Team officials announced he was being evaluated for a head injury.
But he returned later in the first half and helped Indy's suddenly sluggish offense wake up in the second half.
While he caught only three passes for 33 yards, Hilton stole the show from his more high-profile teammates on their own milestone days.
Wayne broke Cris Carter's NFL record for most consecutive games with multiple catches. Carter had done it 58 times in a row. Wayne's streak is now at 59. He also passed Art Monk and Derrick Mason on the NFL's career receptions chart and with 946 is now within five of moving into the top 10.
Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall draft pick who has gotten most of the credit for Indy's remarkable turnaround, was 20 of 37 for 240 yards with one touchdown and one interception and became only the second Colts' rookie to throw top 3,000 yards in a season. The other: Peyton Manning.
And Pagano was there to see — and savor — every precious moment of it again.
Two weeks ago, Pagano returned to Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia Sept. 26, and just having him around on game-day is certainly making an impact.
"I talked to Coach Pagano before the game and he just told me to 'stretch and cut, stretch and cut,'" Hilton said, describing the advice Pagano gave him about returning kicks. "So I was able to stretch and my blockers did a good job of getting in front of their dudes, made two guys miss me and I went to the house."
This time, it wasn't just the players who got to see Pagano.
During a fourth-quarter break, team owner Jim Irsay and Pagano walked out of the owner's box together and waved to crowd, which gave them a standing ovation. Two Colts cheerleaders also shaved their heads in support of Pagano, who has lost his hair as he continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments, between the third and fourth quarters as part of a promise for a fundraising effort for leukemia research
The Bills (4-7) couldn't compete with all of that.
C.J. Spiller ran 14 times for 107 yards, his sixth straight game with 100 yards from scrimmage. Ryan Fitzpatrick was 17 of 33 for 180 yards with one TD and one interception, and Stevie Johnson caught six passes for 106 yards, his first 100-yard game since December 2011.
Though the Bills did end their red-zone touchdown drought with Fitzpatrick's 1-yard TD pass to Lee Smith with 11:30 left in the game, it just wasn't enough against Hilton and the Colts.
Losing Sunday was a major setback for a team hoping to end a 12-year absence from the playoffs.
"This one was obviously really needed," Fitzpatrick said. "I don't really want to project or talk about the next however many games we have left. It's all about 'Go get back to work and try to win next week.' It's all we can worry about."
Hilton got things started by fielding Shawn Powell's 48-yard punt at his own 25, faking out Smith, breaking another tackle in the middle of the field and sprinting to the end zone for Indy's first punt return for a score in five years.
After the teams traded four field goals, Hilton emerged again, pulling down Luck's third-down pass in the back of the end zone.
All the Bills could muster was Fitzpatrick's late TD pass, and Pagano went home a happy man.
"I couldn't be prouder of the football team, because Chuck was here and the goal was to make him smile when he left," Arians said. "I'm sure he's up there smiling."