On Sunday, fourth- and fifth-string quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley each threw a touchdown pass, leading Indianapolis to a 30-24 victory against the Tennessee Titans, but it was not enough to extend the Colts' season.
And it may not be enough to save the jobs of Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson.
Indianapolis officially was eliminated from the playoff picture in a complicated scenario after New Orleans defeated Atlanta, 20-17. Houston (9-7) then clinched the AFC South with a 30-6 victory against Jacksonville.
Adam Vinatieri's 35-yard field goal -- his third of the game -- with 2:25 left secured this victory for the Colts, who finished the season 8-8, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
After a disappointing season in which quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst sustained injuries, the Colts now will wait for Irsay to determine whether to retain Pagano and Grigson. Reports first surfaced in August that Pagano was in trouble because of front-office friction.
While he said nothing definitively during his postgame press conference, Pagano was reflective.
"Mr. Irsay and I will have a discussion on Monday," Pagano said when asked if he expects to be back next season. "I have zero regrets. I am grateful to Mr. Irsay for this opportunity. When you lose your starting quarterback, to win eight games in the NFL is phenomenal.
"I love this job, and I love Indianapolis. The fans helped me through a tough journey (with cancer), so you talk about the love for Hoosier Hospitality. We will deal with tomorrow on Monday."
With its fourth consecutive loss, Tennessee (3-13) clinched the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
And the Titans may have changes coming as well, including interim coach Mike Mularkey, who was 2-7 after replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who was fired Nov. 3 after a 1-6 start.
"I hope to have a chance to sit down with those making the decision and talk about our future," Mularky said after Sunday's loss. "I told our guys to keep their heads up high. They have a lot to be proud of and have done a lot of good things that the record may not reflect. I tried to do everything that I talked about early with these guys when the change was made. As far as our goals, I feel like we got a lot of that accomplished."
Titans veteran safety Michael Griffin understands the potential ramifications of a 3-13 season.
"Winning five games the last two years, it's pretty obvious there are going to be some changes made," he said.
Titans backup quarterback Alex Tanney's 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham with 11:07 remaining in the fourth quarter pulled Tennessee to within 27-24. Tanney directed a six-play, 59-yard scoring drive.
Tennessee's Ryan Succop's 49-yard field goal with 7:30 left in the third period sliced the deficit to 27-17, capping an 11-play, 49-yard drive.
Indianapolis extended its six-point halftime lead to 27-14 with 14:19 remaining in the third quarter on linebacker Jerrell Freeman's 23-yard interception return of a Zach Mettenberger pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage by free safety Dwight Lowery.
Mettenberger, who left the game in the third quarter with a forearm injury, fell to 0-10 in his career as a starting quarterback.
The Colts took a 20-14 halftime lead on Lindley's 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Johnson with 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Indianapolis drove 58 yards in eight plays after the Titans were forced to punt with 1:39 left in the half.
Vinatieri's 52-yard field goal with 6:29 left in the second quarter pulled the Colts to within 14-13. Indianapolis drove 46 yards in seven plays to set up the field goal.
Tennessee took a 14-10 second-quarter lead on running back David Cobb's 1-yard, fourth-down touchdown run, capping an 11-play, 80-yard drive.
That Titans' drive included a 36-yard Statue of Liberty play run by tight end Delanie Walker to the Indianapolis 5-yard line after Walker caught a 17-yard pass from Mettenberger to the Colts' 41. A personal foul face mask penalty against Lowery extended the Tennessee drive.
The Colts had taken a 10-7 lead with 12 seconds remaining in the first quarter on Josh Freeman's 57-yard touchdown pass to tight end Coby Fleener. That four-play drive covered 69 yards.
Freeman, who had only three days as a Colt to prepare for Sunday's game, completed 15 of 28 passes for 149 yards and the touchdown. Lindley, who was the two-minute offense quarterback, completed 6 of 10 passes for 58 yards and a TD.
"This was a great experience today," said Freeman, the former Tampa Bay starter. "A lot of guys did a lot of things right for this victory to happen. The plan was for Lindley to be the two-minute guy, so we each had specific responsibilities. My goal was to go out and win a football game.
"We tried to play turnover-free football, and everybody on this team came together and got a big win. I got prepared to play this week, and I felt good, especially being able to take that snap in the victory formation."
Pagano used the word "phenomenal" to describe the way Freeman and Lindley played with essentially only three days of preparation in the Colts' system.
"What a job Josh and Ryan did," Pagano said. "I am really proud of this team for hanging in there the way it did. Call me crazy, but to be sitting there at 3-5 and then to lose Andrew and still go 5-3 in the second half is a testament to this group."
Tennessee led 7-3 with 2:21 left in the first quarter on Mettenberger's 5-yard touchdown run on the first play after Titans strong safety Da'Norris Searcy intercepted Josh Freeman.
The Colts scored first, driving 49 yards in 13 plays with the opening drive, capped by Vinatieri's 49-yard field goal with 8:57 remaining in the first quarter.
NOTES: Tennessee lost SS Daimion Stafford (forearm), LB J.R. Tavai (ankle) and QB Mettenberger (forearm). ... Indianapolis lost WR Donte Moncrief (toe), T Joe Reitz (knee) and CB Vontae Davis (knee). ... Colts QB Josh Freeman was 10 of 18 for 108 yards and one TD during the first half. ... Indianapolis gained 256 first-half yards and picked up 15 first downs during the first 30 minutes. ... The Colts finished the season 4-4 in Lucas Oil Stadium. ... The Titans finished 2-6 on the road.