By George Bremer
For the Kokomo Tribune
The only thing Reggie Wayne was focused on late Sunday afternoon was the end zone.
The Indianapolis Colts wide receiver caught a pass from rookie quarterback Andrew Luck inside the 5-yard line with time running out in the fourth quarter and stole a glimpse of painted blue field turf in front of him.
The Green Bay Packers (2-3), desperately protecting a five-point lead, swarmed to the football and several defenders grabbed ahold of Wayne and tried to pull him backward. For just an instant, the 12th-year veteran flicked his hands out toward the goal line, attempting to pierce the plane and put six points on the scoreboard.
Wayne was carrying not just the expectations of 67,020 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium — many of whom were firmly in the visiting team’s corner — nor the hopes of his young teammates. The weight on his back included the watchful eyes of his head coach, Chuck Pagano, resting in a hospital room just down the street as he receives treatment for leukemia.
Wayne went down in a pile of white jerseys and yellow helmets, and he wasn’t yet sure whether he’d scored. It was only when he checked the replay on the giant video board above him that the receiver began to grasp the magnitude of what he’d just accomplished.
It will go down in the record books simply as a 4-yard touchdown reception. And Indianapolis (2-2) needed a little nudge from above that helped push Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal attempt wide to the left in the final moments.
But the indelible image of this unforgettable game will be of Wayne, fighting off defenders and stretching over the goal line to deliver an unlikely 30-27 victory.
“I just I didn’t want to be denied, you know?” Wayne said, his voice drained by the effort and emotion of the day. “I just wanted to go out there and get in that end zone. That’s what we said in the huddle, ‘Somebody make a play. Somebody cross that end zone.’ Andrew threw me the ball, and I saw that end zone right there. Got a grip on the ball, stuck it in there and tried to hurry up and sneak it back. And it worked out for us. Wasn’t sure at first how close it was, but when I saw it on the replay, I kind of shocked myself a little bit.”
Wayne was not alone in his feeling of disbelief.
The Packers held a 21-3 lead at the half and regained the lead after the Colts scored 19 unanswered points on an eight-yard touchdown pass from reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers to James Jones with 4:30 remaining in the game.
Luck took possession at his own 20-yard-line, facing a defense with a ferocious pass rush and no reason not to come after him on every snap. A false start penalty pushed the Colts back on second down, and Luck needed conversions on third-and-9, third-and-12 and third-and-7 to keep the drive alive.
Luck was sacked four times and hit on six other occasions, and he was supposed to be too young to produce a drive like this. But he’s been unflappable all season, and he wasn’t about to let the situation get the best of him now.
“He makes great decisions,” interim head coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s not always pretty all the time. He’s still a rookie, you can’t forget that, but he’s been wonderful.”
Luck completed 31 of 55 attempts for 362 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and he had the kind of game that will announce his arrival across the league.
He led the Colts to points on five of his seven second-half drives, starting with an eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Dwayne Allen early in the third quarter. That drive started on the 39-yard line after Jerraud Powers intercepted Rodgers on Green Bay’s opening drive.
“It was definitely a momentum changer,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “There’s always momentum plays in a game. So that [interception] was a big one for the Colts.”
Adam Vinatieri added a 50-yard field goal on the Colts’ next possession, and Luck drove the team 58 yards on six plays — scoring on a 3-yard quarterback draw to cap the series — to make it 21-19.
A 2-point conversion pass failed, and Luck was intercepted by Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward on the team’s next possession. But the Indianapolis defense, which sacked Rodgers five times overall, recorded back-to-back sacks to end the ensuing Packers’ drive and give the ball back to the offense.
Luck responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard Vinatieri field goal and gave the Colts the lead for the first time.
“I think coming into halftime, coming back out, we said there’s no 18-point touchdown,” Luck said. “Let’s play our football. We’re not going to change anything. We just got to do better, do better. I think guys took that to heart, much better attention to detail, execution, focus and you have Reggie Wayne making great plays every fifth play.”
Wayne finished with 13 catches for 212 yards, including an amazing one-handed catch while Green Bay safety Charles Woodson was flagged for pass interference against him in the first half.
But, for a moment, it appeared all that effort would go for naught.
Rodgers, who threw for 243 yards and three touchdowns, needed just two plays to lead the Packers 49 yards for a touchdown to regain the lead. A 2-point pass failed, but Green Bay still held a 27-22 advantage.
“Give credit to the Colts,” McCarthy said. “They battled back.”
The ensuing 80-yard drive will live forever in Colts’ lore. Luck targeted Wayne six times on the drive, and the wide receiver rewarded him with five catches for 64 yards.
Wayne was wearing a specially ordered set of orange gloves, the color of the leukemia awareness movement, and they were unmistakable on the field.
“I think the orange gloves were everywhere,” Luck said. “I felt like there were eight pairs of those out there on the field. I told him after the game he was the best football player I’ve ever played with.”
Luck isn’t too bad himself.
He shook off Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews on third-and-9 and fired a strike to Wayne for a 15-yard gain. Moments later, he hit Wayne again for 15 yards — despite tight coverage by Woodson — on third-and-12. And he set up the game-winning touchdown pass with a seven-yard scramble to the Green Bay 4 on third-and-seven.
“Especially as a receiver, you want to be there for him,” Wayne said. “You want to back him up, and you want to make him look good no matter where he throws the ball. You want to give your body up to go and get it. He’s going to be special, he really is.”
This win likely always will hold a special place in the Luck era.
Green Bay drove to the Indianapolis 33-yard line in the closing moments, but Crosby hooked his 51-yard field goal attempt with three seconds left, and the celebration began on the Colts’ sideline.
The 18-point comeback was the largest for Indianapolis since the famous 2003 “Monday Night Football” game in Tampa when the Colts rallied from 21 points down to beat the Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime.
That game didn’t carry the personal significance of this one, however. To a man, the Colts wanted this win for Pagano.
And, ultimately, Wayne made sure they got it.
His performance was reminiscent of Kellen Winslow’s dominant playoff game for the San Diego Chargers against the Miami Dolphins in 1982, and it was all done in service of his head coach.
“To be able to come out and just do it for him, I said to myself I was going to lay it all out on the line,” Wayne said. “The were going to have to carry me off, the old Winslow Senior, give everything I had. As a team, we were able to just keep fighting, fighting, fighting and fighting. It was collective effort for everybody that was able to find a way, and we got it done.”