INDIANAPOLIS – No one looks at the Indianapolis Colts vs. Green Bay Packers game and calls it a draw. The Packers have the edge in experience and talent. The Colts' intangible is emotion.
There's little question the Colts will harbor an extra edge at the 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff in Lucas Oil Stadium, eager to play well in honor of coach Chuck Pagano, who is in the hospital fighting leukemia.
How long will that edge last?
And does that edge mean anything when Aaron Rodgers is on the other side?
“The one thing we'll have to be very aware of is not getting over-excited, over-hyped, to try to do something extra,” interim coach Bruce Arians said.
That's easier said than done. Defensive end Cory Redding already had been helping set a pregame tone this year, with his intense, emotional demeanor heading into games. That could easily be heightened this week. Redding came to Indianapolis from Baltimore because of Pagano. “Before he's my coach, he's my friend,” Redding said. So if anyone will be rising off the emotions of Pagano's absence, it'll be Redding. Along with Robert Mathis, he helps set the tone for the Colts defense.
“We have to find a way to win against Green Bay,” Redding said, “regardless of what's going on.”
So let's backtrack to those two pertinent questions.
First, how long can the emotional edge last?
The Colts' fans will certainly be as intense as ever, not only because the Packers are a rare opponent (they've met only five times in 21 seasons), but because of Pagano's illness coupled with the fact it is a Breast Cancer Awareness Sunday. The Colts merchandising store is also selling “Chuckstrong” shirts in support of the coach. The atmosphere will be loud.
Pagano sent each player a lengthy email, which Arians intends to read aloud at a team meeting. That will add to the emotion tenor.
But it's a fact of the NFL, and all sports, that playing off emotion can only last so long. After a few plays, maybe a series, Colts vs. Packers will return to the normal ebb and flow of a football game. “Wanting” to play better in order to honor Pagano will be supplanted with the realities of man-to-man football moments.
“Any big game, people think they have to go overboard,” said injured linebacker Pat Angerer, who will not play again on Sunday. “All you have to do is do your job, do the best you can and try not to do anything crazy.”
The emotions of the pregame locker room, some heartfelt exhortations to play well for Pagano, will subside as plays roll, hits come and momentum shifts.
So that brings us to our second question. With Rodgers at the helm for the Packers, does that negate any emotional edge?
Rodgers won the NFL Most Valuable Player award last season. He's on the short list of best quarterbacks in the game today. He leads the NFL in completion percentage (69.9) so far this season and has thrown for over 1,000 yards in four games.
His vulnerability is his pass protection. Rodgers has been sacked 16 times this season. Mathis will undoubtedly bring some heat. He's the Colts' leader when it comes to pass rushing. Earlier this week, it seemed as if injured rushing partner Dwight Freeney could return. That would add some other emotion to the defensive attack. But a rational observer would have to expect that Freeney's likelihood of playing remains slim.
There's also the matter of the Colts secondary, which is banged up and will be without starting cornerback Vontae Davis. (The offense, incidentally, has its own issues on the line, which could lead to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck encountering Packers linebacker Clay Matthews a time or two.)
“(Rodgers) can make every throw,” Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “He can put it in the tight spots, he can check, he makes audibles at the line of scrimmage and puts his offense in the best situations. He's mobile. He probably doesn't get a lot of credit for his mobility, but he can move out of the pocket and scramble for first downs. …He's one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in the league.”
Let me reduce Powers' assessment of Rodgers: He's elite.
Even though the Packers will be without wide receiver Greg Jennings, the Colts expect Rodgers to try to exploit the Colts passing game, sprinkled with some Cedric Benson runs to keep the defense honest.
“(They'll get) in shotgun and air it out,” Mathis said. “They'll do what they do well and we just have to stop it. Consequently, we have to do what we do better than what they do.”
It'll be an emotional game for the Colts, their first without Pagano. It would be a great story if they were able to take the game-winning football and present it to their coach.
Anything can happen in the NFL. The Colts could upset the Packers.
If they do, it'll happen through strong play, smart play and big plays, and not simply a huddle full of emotion.