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COLUMN

What if best is yet to come for Colts, Pagano?

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Indy clinched playoff berth Sunday, Pagano back Monday

Sunday, December 23, 2012 - 11:05 pm

One of the best parts about this inspiring “ChuckStrong” saga is the fact we don't yet know the ending, except that it's a happy one.

The Indianapolis Colts clinched a wildcard playoff berth, beating the Kansas City Chiefs 20-13 on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

As a bonus, Coach Chuck Pagano, the focal point of “ChuckStrong,” returns to the team Monday morning, his leukemia in remission. He's expected to be on the sideline for the home finale vs. Houston and on the road for the wildcard playoff game a week later.

No one could have expected this season when Peyton Manning and friends said farewell, nor when Andrew Luck was picked No.1, nor on that painful, late September day when the Colts announced Pagano's life was in jeopardy.

We couldn't have predicted Bruce Arians to run things this well in the interim, give or take an inexplicable play call (T.Y. Hilton with a goal-to-go pass attempt?). We couldn't have predicted a 10-5 record heading into Game No.16.

Here's something else, moving forward: We can't predict what happens next.

There's a possibility the Colts' season will peak with the tearful, heartfelt reunion with Pagano on Christmas Eve. It wouldn't be the worst thing for Pagano to come back, the Colts to play competitively for two more weeks, exit the playoffs with a sense of over-achievement and continue “building the monster.”

There's another, better possibility, though.

What if Pagano's return rejuvenates everyone and elevates play again?

Let's face it, the last month or so the Colts have looked average more than they've looked special.

Don't get me wrong, there have been enough special plays to reach this point. Among them: Luck's throw to Donnie Avery to complete the two-touchdown comeback at Detroit; Cassius Vaughn's pick-six and Adam Vinatieri's kick-threes to beat Tennessee; and Luck's touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne for his game-winning drive against the Chiefs on Sunday.

But the Colts have looked tired or spent or something during substantial stretches the last few weeks. Luck's throws have sailed. Colts receivers, even Wayne, have dropped footballs that hit them right in their hands. The Colts run defense couldn't figure out the Chiefs' Peyton Hillis (15 carries, 101 yards), let alone Jamaal Charles (22 for 226). Plus, I repeat: Arians tried to have Hilton throw a touchdown pass.

It's a long season. The mental strain was as tough on the Colts, with their coach undergoing chemotherapy, as on any team in the league. Add multiple injuries and a huge number of rookies and it's no wonder they've been inconsistent down the stretch.

Imagine, though, the possibility that Pagano's return changes all that.

The playoffs can be energizing enough. You're down to six AFC teams. The first game, which will likely be at Baltimore, will be one where a strong performance by the Colts could lead to a win. Two wins and they're in the AFC Championship game, within sight of the Super Bowl.

The playoff opportunity alone is enough to spur any team to tap back into the attributes of regular-season success.

Now throw Pagano into the mix. Some have wondered how the hierarchy will shake out. How will the Colts adjust to Arians stepping back into the sole role of offensive coordinator? “ChuckStrong” has been the motto. Now the man himself returns in the flesh.

I can see this energizing the Colts.

Regardless of whether they beat the Texans at home next Sunday, I can see the Colts entering the playoffs rallying around Pagano, feeding off his determination and excitement to be back. I don't think Arians gets in the way. He's handled everything well to this point and the fact is Arians was calling offensive plays when Pagano was coaching the first three games.

The statistical milestones have been reached. The Colts have 10 wins. Andrew Luck has the new rookie records for passing yards, game-winning drives and one-possession wins. Wayne reached 100 catches for the fourth time in his career. Dwayne Allen set a Colts mark for receptions by a rookie tight end and Hilton has a Colts rookie record for 100-yard receiving games.

No one expects the Colts to win more than one playoff game, if that. The idea that they could go to Denver, New England or Houston and win seems improbable.

This season seems improbable.

Maybe the Colts peak with Pagano's return Monday. Maybe that's the final chapter, with the playoff game an epilogue to the year and a prelude to 2013.

Or maybe “ChuckStrong” has a second act that ends up being more incredible and inspiring than the first.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.