Remarkable things in a remarkable season
Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano will make his return to the sidelines in the ultimate game of the season against the Houston Texans. The 11-year NFL coaching veteran will lead his team out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since he was diagnosed with Leukemia prior to Week 4.
Pagano’s return comes at an opportune moment. The Colts have the fifth playoff seed locked down and only await the weekend’s other NFL outcomes to find out where they will play on Wild Card Weekend. This is a low-impact opportunity for the Colts' staff and players to work their heroic head coach back into his sideline role.
While this game has immense symbolic significance for the Colts, it carries gargantuan importance for the Texans. The Texans guarantee themselves a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over their AFC South rival.
The Texans manhandled the Colts in Week 15, though several mistakes allowed the Colts to keep the score close through three quarters. NFL All-Pro running back Arian Foster finished that game off in the fourth quarter, running over and around the Colts to ice the game.
Given the Colts’ security in next week’s NFL Wild Card Weekend, they should be tempted to rest some players. There is no NFL rule preventing the Colts from resting key players, and the only teams that would benefit from the Colts playing their stars are the two teams that can catch the Texans in the AFC standings—the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.
So what would possess an NFL coaching staff to expose their players to injury in a competitively meaningless game?
First and foremost, the Colts are warriors. Veteran Reggie Wayne said that he’s “built to play,” and Coach Pagano said, “it’s not in our DNA (to rest players).” The Colts players want to play, not keep their bodies safe on the sideline.
Add to that the AFC South rivalry and the players have more incentive not to step aside and allow their nemesis an easy path to the AFC Championship—where the Colts could conceivably find themselves.
There is another factor that influences who will play in this game for the Colts. Assuming the improbable doesn’t happen and the two AFC wild-card teams make the AFC Championship Game, this is the final home game of the season for the Colts.
Resting Andrew Luck’s sore knee may not sit too well with the fan in the stands wearing the $120 “No. 12 Andrew Luck Elite” jersey. Colts fans were not too happy the last time the team rested players for the playoffs, and that was Peyton Manning!
Finally, the Colts’ success this season has been all about momentum. The Colts have not lost consecutive games this season and their second-half kidnappings of Uncle Mo from their opponents’ sidelines has served them well in their seven come-from-behind wins. Coach Pagano is understandably hesitant to allow Uncle Mo to wander too far from the Colts’ sideline with the playoffs beginning next week.
With this stage set, here are five predictions for the ultimate game of the Colts’ season, listed in order of the certainty with which they will occur.
Colts' fans will welcome Chuck Pagano back to the NFL sidelines on Sunday
When Coach Pagano leads the Colts out of the tunnel on Sunday, the crowd's response will be heard all the way down in Louisville. Pagano's welcome back will go on for some time.
This is the final game of the season against an AFC South rival that beat up the Colts two weeks ago. The supporters will be in full voice throughout this game.
Also, expect the fans to recognize the Colts' surprising accomplishments this season toward the end of the game.
Corey Redding is one of many injured Colts
Defensive lineman Cory Redding, center Samson Satele, nose tackle Antonio Johnson and running back Delone Carter are officially listed as "out" for this game. The NFL would not look kindly on these players making it onto the field.
Wide receiver Donnie Avery, linebacker Kavell Conner, tackle Winston Justice, center A.Q. Shipley, cornerback Teddy Williams, and safety Tom Zbikowski are all listed as "questionable" and were limited in practice this week.
The only fans coming to see these guys are their families, and they would prefer to see them on the field next week in the playoffs rather than in this meaningless game. The injuries to the offensive line are the most troubling, particularly given its inability to protect franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts need all of these guys healthy next week in the Wild Card Game, and going up against Texan tornado JJ Watt is not the way to keep an offensive lineman healthy.
These guys will not see the field against the Texans.
Colts rookie Vick Ballard
Vick Ballard is quietly having a superb rookie season. The fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi State University took over as the Colts' featured back in Week 7.
He has 736 rushing yards on 184 carries (4.0 yds/att) and 15 receptions for 143 yards (9.1 yds/rec). Ballard is only 121 yards shy of the 1,000-yards-from-scrimmage mark. Ninety percent of those yards have come in the final 10 weeks of the season.
The Colts will want to slow down the Texans' pass rush, so expect a lot of touches for Ballard in this game. Screens and draw plays are one strategy for slowing down a strong upfield pass rush. Ballard may also get a few dump-downs when the pressure gets to Luck.
Ballard will get the chances to push himself over the 1,000-yard mark.
These two are too valuable to risk
Reggie Wayne has binders full of current NFL consecutive-game records, and he is widely regarded as one of the game's greatest warriors. Whether in practice or blocking on a screen for one of his understudies, Wayne goes all-out every time he laces up. The Colts' staff would have to hide his uniform and chain him to his locker to keep him from starting this game.
Andrew Luck has demonstrated a similar mentality. It is the only way he has survived as a rookie QB in the NFL. Most NFL coaches refuse to feed their fragile rookie quarterbacks to the defensive wolves, but Luck is made of sterner stuff. Despite being sacked 40 times and hit an NFL-leading 111 times, Luck shows no sign of breaking.
These are precisely the reasons why the Colts' coaching staff will rest their stars at some point in the second half—protect Wayne from himself and Luck from the leviathan J.J. Watt.
Every athlete, in every sport, in every corner of the globe knows that recovery for a trained athlete is absolutely essential to future performance and avoiding injuries. Only those who believe the earth is flat—and shortsighted fans—refuse to believe these scientific facts.
The coaching staff and players did an excellent job all week of reiterating their team’s warrior mentality and promoting the attitude that got them to this point in their remarkable season.
But it would be professional malfeasance for the coaches and players—and lunacy by the Colts’ fans—to insist on Wayne and Luck finishing a meaningless game. Everyone needs to keep their eyes on the prize.
And the prize ain’t playing the second half in Week 17 against the Texans.
With these guys in the stadium, how can you lose?
Recall that these predictions are listed from most to least likely, which means this is the least likely. But what the heck.
The Colts will win by less than a touchdown with Luck and Wayne on the bench.
And since the limb is already shaking, the Texans will still have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after the Denver Broncos lose to the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots lose to the Miami Dolphins.