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.