Chuck Pagano's return to the sideline should be the most emotional moment of 2012 in the NFL. The crowd response will be deafening.
But when the applause dies down, the Indianapolis Colts have a game to win, and a difficult one. The Houston Texans hope to clinch home-field playoff advantage while the Colts look for momentum. Here are five pivotal factors if the Colts are to win:
Control those emotions
The Colts need to channel the emotions surrounding Pagano's return and not let the moment overwhelm them. Considering how much the team and the coach have been through, they should be able to deal with it. Pagano needs to be able to harness his emotions, too, and concentrate on the task at hand. The best thing Pagano can do is stir his troops to play their best, within the framework of the game plan, and then shoot for business as usual. Let Bruce Arians roll with the play calling.
Figure out Watt's power
J.J. Watt sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck three times in the Texans' 29-17 win over the Colts two weeks ago. The Texans put major pressure on Luck other times, too. It should be different at home with the home crowd allowing for more audibles and changes at the line of scrimmage. Watt needs two sacks to tie Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5, so you know he'll be bringing the heat. Double teams might be required, or perhaps divine intervention.
“Farewell” fling for Freeney?
This could be Dwight Freeney's last home game with the Colts, depending on what happens in the offseason. What better way to go out than to finally unleash a double-sack day – maybe a sack-and-strip – on Matt Schaub? The Colts' secondary had issues trying to deal with Andre Johnson two weeks ago, so it's imperative to try to force Schaub into mistakes. That means pressure. It would be huge for Freeney and Robert Mathis to evoke past glories one last time.
More plays from Vontae
Vontae Davis has begun to show some of the promise that the Colts saw in him when they made the trade to acquire him from the Dolphins. He had a nice interception taken away by a bogus pass-interference penalty last week. Davis will be needed to try to limit Andre Johnson. The Colts aren't going to shut down Johnson completely, so but if they can limit his touches, yards after catch and gigantic touchdown catches, they stand a much better chance.
Return of run defense
The run defense against the Chiefs was an affront to run defenses everywhere. The Colts could not find a way to contain the outside burst of the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis and gave up 352 yards rushing. This week, the Colts said they've identified and fixed the problem. That's impressive if true. They'll be tested by Arian Foster, who has abused the Colts defense in the past.
Good hands receivers
Colts receivers didn't help Luck last week with some drops in crucial situations. Given the scant amount of time Luck has to operate, he cannot afford to have his best passes fall incomplete. Even the great Reggie Wayne dropped a couple against the Chiefs. If the Colts receivers go back to hauling in everything, even the tough passes, Luck and the Colts' offense will be able to sustain longer drives. Longer drives are good.