by Kent Sterling
Forget Sean Payton. Forget Ron Rivera. Forget Pete Carroll. Forget Bill Belichick. Chuck Pagano has done a flat out incredible job of maximizing a mediocre Colts roster for a second straight year.
They weren’t that great when camp broke, and injuries ravaging skill positions on the offensive side of the ball have done nothing to improve things for the Colts, but they keep winning and winning.
Before this season, the talk was about how the Colts played in good luck in 2012, responded to Pagano’s diagnosis of cancer by bonding and fighting, and were the beneficiaries of Bruce Arians’ aggressive mojo.
Gone are the cancer, Arians, and supposed good luck that allowed the Colts to compile a record of 11-5 despite being outscored over the course of the 16-game season by 30 points. By earning a 9-1 record in games decided by seven or less points, the Colts were declared the luckiest team in NFL history by statisticians.
Also gone have been future hall of famer Reggie Wayne, second year running back Vick Ballard, backup running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and second year hybrid tight end Dwayne Allen. Cornerback Greg Toler has been out for weeks. And yet the Colts are 10-5.
Yes, the AFC South is brutally bad, and the Colts have taken advantage by posting an unblemished 5-0 divisional record heading into this Sunday’s season finale against Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium. Minus the Colts, the South’s aggregate record is 12-33, but the remaining 10 Colts opponents are 92-57.
Eight of those 10 teams are still in the playoff hunt, and if the Rams win their season ender at Seattle, only Oakland among them will finish below .500. The Colts finished 5-5 outside the division with wins over Denver, Seattle, and Oakland at home, and KC and San Francisco on the road.
And outside of Andrew Luck and Robert Mathis, who the hell are these guys? Donald Brown, Trent Richardson, Griff Whalen, Cassius Vaughn, Jerrell Freeman, and T.Y. Hilton are not exactly the pieces of your typical playoff team puzzle.
The Colts leading rusher is Brown with 506 yards, and the top receiver is Hilton with 928 yards. Even after winning their last two games by a combined score of 48-10, the Colts have only outscored their opponents by 35 points.
The Chiefs were playing at home for a shot at the AFC West Championship coming off two straight wins where they outscored their opponents 101-41. Granted, those wins were against awful Oakland and Washington teams, but averaging 50.5 points in the NFL is an accomplishment regardless of the opponent.
Running back Jamaal Charles was dynamic and explosive, and quarterback Alex Smith was efficient and relentless. Yesterday, Charles was ordinary, and Smith was the flawed field general the 49ers dumped as KC scored an early touchdown and nothing more.
The Colts could wind up earning the second seed in the AFC playoffs for a reason, and the best available answer is Pagano and his staff. Obviously, the Colts need to win in order to move up from the #4 spot they currently occupy, but if the Patriots and Bengals both lose, the Colts earn a first round bye. If the Pats win and Bengals lose, the Colts are the #3 seed. If the Bengals win and the Pats loss, the Colts are the #3 seed. If both lose, the Colts get a week off before hosting a divisional round playoff game. The Pats will be favored at home against the Bills, and Bengals also favored in Cincinnati against the Ravens, but that we are even having this conversation is incredible.
Pagano doesn’t say outrageous things to the media, rip his players on the sidelines or in post game comments, or draw attention to himself in any way or on any platform. That will make him a less than sexy candidate, but if the voters look at the body of work that Pagano has compiled in 2013, he is impossible to ignore.
With all the chaos on the roster, the drafting of Andrew Luck, and the wheeling and dealing general manager Ryan Grigson has done – the most important move made by the Colts has been the signing of Pagano – a man and leader worthy of respect, and a coach worth of an honor like the NFL Coach of the Year.