BALTIMORE – Maybe we're looking at the wrong matchup, contemplating whether the “ChuckStrong” vibe of the Indianapolis Colts can overcome the raw emotion of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' last stand.
Maybe it'll come down to Chuck vs. John.
The AFC Wildcard Playoff game at 1 p.m. today at M&T Bank Stadium might turn on the moves of Colts coach Chuck Pagano and Ravens coach John Harbaugh, on decisions made or deferred, on challenge flags thrown or held. To punt or not to punt, that is the question.
The truth is there's no way to have a true feel for what Pagano can do as a game-day coach. He's coached four games, three before beating leukemia, one after. He's 2-2. He seems revitalized by his return, the players are thrilled to have him back and offensive coordinator and former interim coach Bruce Arians is the new hot property in the coaching vacancy game.
But we don't know Pagano's on-the-fly decision-making style yet. He hasn't had enough time to reveal it.
If it comes down to a couple coaching moves, the edge has to go to Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has coached nine playoff games, winning five of them. This isn't new territory. Add to that experience the fact Pagano was at Harbaugh's side, as an assistant, picking up tendencies and strategic ideas.
“I would not be standing here today if it wasn't for John Harbaugh and the opportunity he gave me,” Pagano said. “He's a fine man, a really good father and an unbelievable football coach with what he's done with the program and that team the last five seasons.”
Pagano called Harbaugh a “sounding board” in terms of his coaching growth.
The good news for the Colts is that Pagano has undoubtedly picked up some valuable insight into head coaching from Harbaugh. He might have a hunch about what Harbaugh will do. The bad news is Harbaugh could be pretty good at anticipating Pagano's moves, and use experience to stay a step ahead.
Obviously, the Colts won't be changing an approach they've used all season, with and without Pagano. Arians will still call the plays, using Luck and taking chances. Greg Manusky's defense will again try to limit yards in the red zone, bending a bit but not breaking.
Offensively, the goal is simple: Be as balanced as possible and avoid turnovers. Defensively, stop the run.
But if it's a close game, there's going to be a point where the head coaches make pivotal calls. I thought Pagano should have thrown a challenge flag last week when T.Y. Hilton took Andrew Luck's pass to the goal line and seemed to cross before his knee hit. Pagano didn't challenge, and it was a moot point when Vick Ballard scored afterward.
There are other areas where Pagano's instincts and decision-making have yet to be fully revealed. What will he do in a close game, having the ball just out of field goal range, on fourth-and-short? Points are always at a premium in playoff games.
If Arians lobbies to go for it, will Pagano defer? If Arians hesitates, will Pagano push aggressiveness? Would Luck ever consider waving off the punt team like Peyton Manning? (The first two answers, I don't know. The third answer is: Maybe at some point, but not as a rookie.)
The closer it gets to game time, the more I tend to see the edge leaning toward Baltimore.
Say what you will about Joe Flacco, he's been in the playoffs every season. He's postseason tested. He's not Manning or Tom Brady, but he's been on this playoff stage before. Luck hasn't.
Lewis might be a shell of his former self, but surely he can summon one highly emotional “blast from the past” performance now that he's revealed the end is near.
Then there's Harbaugh. He joined Chuck Knox (Rams) and Bill Cowher (Steelers) as the only coaches since the 1970 merger to lead teams to the playoffs in their first five seasons. Harbaugh has seen everything, experienced everything, and conquered quite a bit, in his five years.
The Ravens were not especially hot entering the playoffs, losing four of their last five. But that one win – a 33-14 blasting of the New York Giants – revealed enough of the old strength to reignite their swagger.
It's tough for any young player to thrive in his first postseason, let alone a team of young players like the Colts. Add a rookie head coach to the mix and that's a lot of playoff newness.
Pagano knows how to deal with stress and adversity. That's a given. But will he go for it on fourth-and-goal in the third quarter of a tied playoff game? We won't know until it happens. Maybe today.