Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians made it clear from the day he took over for Chuck Pagano: the goal was to extend the season into the playoffs, long enough to allow the return of Pagano following treatment for leukemia. That goal seemed far-fetched back on October 1st for a team with a 1-2 record, a rookie quarterback, and suddenly left without the leadership of its head coach.
But a playoff berth is now just a win away for the Colts (9-5). That victory should come Sunday in Kansas City, where the Chiefs have won just two games. Then on Monday, Pagano is expected to return to his duties as head coach.
Arians has guided the Colts to an 8-3 record during Pagano's absence. Arians symbolically requested the light be kept on in Pagano's office since the head coach left. Arians is ready to step down from leading the team and resume his duties as solely the offensive coordinator. He says Pagano's return to work on Christmas Eve will be a great present to the team.
"He's not going to come back unless he's ready to go," said Arians. "He knows what this grind is and what we're getting into. He knows he's ready if he comes back."
The Colts could make Pagano's first week back on the job a lot easier by wrapping up a playoff spot Sunday with a win over the Chiefs.
"We haven't done it yet," said Colts defensive end Cory Redding, who came to Indianapolis from Baltimore with Pagano. "This game is big like every other game. Once we achieve our goal, we'll come back in here on Monday having Chuck with us. I can't wait to see him and can't wait to have him in the front of the room, talking to the team that he assembled."
"He's our leader," said Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne. "He's our general. To get him back, I think that would be picture perfect. He has been through some tough times and he has fought through it. He's made us fight and taught us how to fight. To have him back in front of us for a playoff game, I think that would be great and it'd be even greater if we just continue to win.
All indicators point to a Colts win Sunday. The Chiefs failed to score last Sunday in Oakland against a Raiders team that has allowed the most points in the NFL. The Chiefs score the fewest points in the NFL, just 13.9 points per game. The Chiefs run the ball well with Jamaal Charles rushing for over 1,200 yards this season. But quarterback Brady Quinn struggles in the passing game, a measly 180 yards per game.
The Colts have won 10 of their last 12 games against the Chiefs. The Colts are 7-4 at Arrowhead Stadium, although they have not played in Kansas City since 2004. The Colts look to become just the second team in NFL history to win 10-or-more games after losing 14-or-more the previous season.
The Colts have made a remarkable turnaround, inspired by the fight of their head coach against leukemia. The CHUCKSTRONG movement has captivated the entire community. I was reminded of that again by Tracy, the woman wearing an orange CHUCKSTRONG bracelet next to me on the flight from Indianapolis to Kansas City. She's a Colts season ticket holder, thrilled but surprised by the Colts success. Tracy was headed to Omaha, Nebraska, to spend Christmas with her parents. But she'll be watching the Colts on television Sunday, and can't wait to be at Lucas Oil Stadium December 30th when Pagano leads the Colts back on the field against the Texans in the regular season finale.
Chuck Pagano is coming back to the Colts, and the Colts are going back to the playoffs.
What to watch for Sunday:
-Andrew Luck needs just 74 yards passing to set the NFL rookie record.
-The Colts and Chiefs are two of the worst teams in the league in giveaway/takeaway ratio (30th & 31st). Luck has thrown most of his interceptions on the road (13 of 18). The old adage that the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins is truer than ever in this one.
-Even if the Colts lose to the Chiefs, the Colts still clinch a playoff spot if the Bengals beat the Steelers.