Jamaal Charles ran for 165 yards against the Colts Sunday.In the third quarter.

At one point in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium, interim coach Bruce Arians looked out onto the field and surveyed just who was playing for him. On offense, on the 73-yard game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive, he counted seven first-year players. On defense, well, he wasn't quite sure what he saw. Indy already had four defensive tackles on injured reserve, the nominal starter at the nose, Antonio Johnson, was inactive with an ankle injury, and two other defensive linemen went down during the game. So trying to somehow plug the leak were four Colts who'd been plucked off the street, off waivers from the Packers, Jets, Cowboys and Rams during this season. "Hang in there,'' Arians kept telling his waiver wonders. A week or so ago, Arians didn't know the name of the seventh nose tackle the Colts had employed this year, undrafted 355-pound plugger Kellen Heard, picked up from the Rams and activated earlier this month, but now he was trying to stone Peyton Hillis and Charles, and somehow it worked. Somehow, 352 Chief rushing yards later, it worked, and the Indianapolis Colts, 2-14 a year ago, won their 10th game of 2012, clinching a playoff spot.

"Mission accomplished,'' a totally spent Arians, 60, said from the bus, on the way to the airport. "This is the greatest moment of my coaching career. This is the top. I called the plays in a two-minute drive to win the Super Bowl, but this beats that. I mean, we're the College All-Stars. Remember when the NFL champion used to play the college all-stars in the preseason every year? That's who we are -- the College All-Stars. And we're in the playoffs.''

Arians was the perfect junkyard dog for one of the most difficult coaching assignments in NFL history. The Steelers let him walk last year, and Arians was bitter about it. For eight years he coached Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, getting very close to Roethlisberger. Too close, some in the organization thought, and after last year the Steelers decided to make a change -- to get a fresh offensive voice and approach for the league's 12th-rated offense, and to challenge Roethlisberger too. It was Arians who called the plays, as he said, on the length-of-the-field drive in the final minutes of the Super Bowl four years ago, including the pass play into the corner of the end zone for Santonio Holmes that won it. When Chuck Pagano got the Colts' coaching job last January, he saw his old friend Arians on the street and hired him to coach the offense, including the new franchise quarterback in town, Andrew Luck. And when Pagano had to take a leave to treat his leukemia when the Colts were 1-2, the team tabbed Arians to take his place.

Arians won nine games and lost three. This morning, Pagano, his cancer in remission, returns to take his team back. And Arians will be in the office too ... only perhaps a few minutes late.

Arians and Pagano had an emotional phone conversation after the 20-13 win over the Chiefs. Pagano thanked Arians, twice. Arians told Pagano that he'd been given a job, and he tried to do it to the best of his ability. And Arians said: "Don't you come in too early tomorrow, because I won't be early. I might have a little hangover when I get there."

Imagine Arians' emotion today. He walked off the Arrowhead field at 3:07 p.m., having piloted a reeling team into the playoffs as an interim coach; no interim coach since 1952 had won nine games with any NFL teams. And while he was in the locker room, word came down that the team that dumped him was eliminated from playoff contention. Arians is no gloater, and he did none of that Sunday. But come on. Who wouldn't be thinking emotional thoughts at a time like that?

Owner Jim Irsay gave Arians a bearhug in the locker room and said into the coach's ear: "Thank you. Thank you."

"To be respected that much by Mr. Irsay after what I've been through this year ... '' and his voice trailed off.

Saturday night, Arians told his players to "finish the job. Chuck doesn't need a stressful week when he comes back Monday. He doesn't need to have a must-win to make the playoffs.'' And he said Sunday: "You give a professional athlete a cause, and he'll respond. These guys responded.''

Arians responded. He kept a new team with a 70 percent turnover from last year from fracturing, and he did it on his first shot to be an NFL head coach. "I finally got a chance to be a head coach,'' he said, "and I got the chance while leading a group of men on a special mission for a great man [Pagano] himself. Nothing can compare to this.''

Nothing does.

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