Tribune Star Correspondent
Emotions figure to be at a high level when the Indianapolis Colts take the field for Sunday's regular-season home finale with Houston.
Head coach Chuck Pagano, who has missed the last 12 games as he underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments for a form of leukemia, will be back on the sidelines.
"It’s going to be awesome. Anytime you’re taken away, 28 years I knew exactly where I was supposed to be and where I was in the fall, and certainly it wasn’t at home. I just wasn’t used to that. So being able to get back, we targeted this day and being able to get back and rejoining the team and run out with the team, make it back for the final home game and then into the playoffs is a true blessing," Pagano said Friday.
"It’s going to be a great day for everybody else. We’ve got business to take care of. The main focus obviously is the Texans and winning this football game. But I’m ecstatic obviously and feel very, very blessed to get back."
This week's game with Houston (12-3) was the target date for Pagano's potential return. When it was announced that the first-year head coach was ill and would be taking an extended leave of absence from the team prior to the Colts' Oct. 7 home game with Green Bay, interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said the goal would be to extend the season so that Pagano would be able to coach again.
At the time, with Indianapolis off to a 1-2 start and facing a tough Packers squad, nobody gave Indianapolis much of a chance to make good on Arians' game plan. But lo and behold, here are the Colts heading into the Houston game with a 10-5 record and the No. 5 seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs all sewn up.
Who would have believed that it was possible?
"Just look at everything that has transpired over the last 12 weeks. This team has been resilient. They win a football game and then you have a couple of defeats. Come back and win the Green Bay game and then you go to New York and what happened [lost 35-9]. [Indianapolis] never lost two games in a row. They’d string three or four [wins] together, stub a toe here or there and then come right back and win a football game," Pagano related.
"So absolutely I believe that what they’ve created and what they have going on right now, for us not to go out there and play this football game and carry momentum. To be able to win this football game and send a message to everybody else, continue to send a message, I think that’s only to our benefit to go out there and try to win this football game, get number 11 and then carry that momentum into the playoffs. You want to get going into the playoffs with a good feeling. There’d be no better feeling than to have 11 wins under your belt and have that momentum going into the playoffs.”
The Colts coach credits Arians, as well as the rest of the team's coaching staff and players, for rallying together under tough circumstances.
“They’ve grown leaps and bounds. When I watch, especially these young guys, again going back to the veteran leadership and what they’ve given to these young guys and carried them through. The times they thought they were about out of gas and got them through that rookie wall, so to speak. I just see them gaining. They just got better each and every week. I look at every phase. They’d be the first ones to tell you that there’s a lot of things that you could do better. But they come to work every day, they did for the last 12 weeks and they did coming back," Pagano stressed.
"And watching them now, there’s a reason they were able to do what they’ve done because they prepare. They understand the process and they’ve stayed with the process,. [The players] didn’t get ahead of themselves. [They] just worked to get better each and every week. We wanted to play our best football not early in the season but at the end of the year. And I think that’s what they’re doing.”
Hold the emotions in check -- Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne understands that having Pagano back on the sidelines is cause for celebration.
But Wayne also knows that there is a job to be done against the Texans.
"[The Colts' effort] shouldn’t change any. I think everybody has been focused, as they would have been anyway. Not to take anything away from coach coming back. We are truly happy he is back and we all want to go out there and win. Having him back, we want to continue to play tough at home," he explained.
"We’ve got the team that beat us pretty good a couple of weeks ago that’s a division opponent. If you ain’t full of intensity already, than you probably don’t have a heartbeat. Everybody is glued in. Everybody is locked and loaded and hopefully we can go out there and play good ball.”
Wayne added that most of the emotions that are exhibited Sunday will come from the fans and the team's support staff.
“Hopefully, us in this locker room, all our tears are gone by the time Sunday gets here. Now, for the fans that may be a little different. I think Chuck deserves every cheer he is going to get and then some. Us, hopefully by then, we are dialed in to what we need to do and we can kind of put that behind us a little bit and go out there and win the game for him," he said.
"It’s going to be a good one. It will probably still touch me a little bit but it’s going to be a good one. We just want to go out there and play well and go into these playoffs with some momentum and continue to play hard at home.”
Injury list -- Running back Delone Carter (ankle), center Samson Satele (ankle), defensive end Cory Redding (quad) and nose tackle Antonio Johnson (ankle) will not play Sunday.
"The rest of the guys will be listed as questionable or probable. [Center A.Q.] Shipley, [wide receiver Donnie] Avery, [inside linebacker Kavell] Conner, [safety Tom Zbikowski], [offensive tackle] Winston Justice, [cornerback] Teddy Williams, [inside linebacker Jerrell] Freeman and [quarterback Andrew] Luck. Everybody else is good to go," Pagano said.
"We feel like we’ve had three very good days of practice, really productive. Again those guys have done a fabulous job up to this point and obviously they’re not going to miss a beat, they know what’s at stake and they did a great job. We had a great day [in practice Friday], a lot of emphasis on red zone. It’s been a good week.”
Redding, who is nursing a quad injury, might have tried to play if it was a playoff game.
"It's a pretty significant, quad strain. Cory is as tough as they come so I think if he could, he would, absolutely. I think it’s pretty significant so there’s no sense in forcing the issue with him at this point," the Colts coach said.
"I think he’s made enough progress talking to the trainers, talking to [head athletic trainer] Dave Hammer in the training room this week to where [Redding] be fine [for next week's wild-card playoff game].”
Luck is fine -- The Colts' rookie quarterback has been undergoing daily treatments for most of the season due to a sore knee. Otherwise he is in relatively good shape heading into the postseason.
"I’m sure he’d be the first one to tell you he’s okay. But like all of them, like all the coaches this time of year and all those players, everyone is a little bit tired, everyone is a little bit nicked up," Pagano said.
"I’m sure his arm, he’s thrown a lot of passes, it’s probably a little bit tired. But he’s a tough guy, he’s strong both mentally and physically, and he’s been able to push through and do a great job.”