INDIANAPOLIS — The playoff talk had been heating up in Buffalo all week.
T.Y. Hilton doused those dreams with two big plays Sunday.
Indianapolis' rookie receiver scored on a 75-yard punt return, caught an 8-yard TD pass, became the first player in franchise history to do both in the same game and led the Colts to a critical 20-13 victory over the beleaguered Bills.
"It's frustrating, when you work hard all year to have a good season and get into the postseason," safety Jairus Byrd said. "We dug this hole for ourselves."
If they want to end the NFL's longest active streak without a playoff appearance, they're going to have to dig themselves out of that hole again.
Buffalo (4-7) certainly had chances Sunday.
But they settled for two more red-zone field goals before finally ending their TD drought with a 1-yard TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Lee Smith with 11:30 left in the game. It was Buffalo's first touchdown in seven trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. They allowed Andrew Luck to complete two big third-down passes, including the touchdown pass to Hilton, and when the Colts took over with 3:22 left in the game, the Bills' high-priced defense couldn't get off the field.
It was a devastating blow.
"I told our players, `Our goal now is to get to 7-7,'" coach Chan Gailey said. "That's where the world champions were last year. We've got to get to 7-7 and see where everything sits, because that's where they were, and they won it all. So let's see if we can get to that."
The problem Sunday was that they couldn't corral Hilton.
He came into Sunday's game with three 100-yard games, and showed Sunday that he's got more than just flash to his game. He's tough, too.
After making a couple of nifty moves to return the first punt for a score, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound receiver took a vicious high-low combination hit on his second return – 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.
"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."
While Hilton 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.
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.
"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."
NOTES: Spiller's six-game streak is the longest by a Bills player since Thurman Thomas in 1992-93. ... Wayne also moved into the NFL's top 15 for yards receiving, passing Monk and Irving Fryar. ... Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay left in the first half with a neck injury and fullback Corey McIntyre left in the fourth quarter with a right ankle injury. Neither returned. ... Buffalo hasn't won in Indy since 1998 and has lost seven of the last eight in this series.