INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano beat the traffic and a blizzard into work Wednesday morning — all in an effort to beat the Texans.
After spending the last three months fighting leukemia, the inspirational Colts coach arrived early at the team complex. He met briefly with his players to give them a succinct message about this week's game plan, then stepped onto the practice field for the first time since Sept. 26.
It seemed nothing had changed.
“From Day 1, we set goals for ourselves, and after watching what this team has done over the course of the season, the last 12 weeks, it's just not in our DNA,” Pagano said when asked about resting his starters Sunday against Houston. “Our families deserve it, our fans deserve to see our best game regardless of the circumstances. They're going to roll the ball out there and our job is to win a ballgame and that's what we're going to do.”
While Pagano wanted to take a business-as-usual approach into his first regular workday, it certainly wasn't easy amid all the outside stuff.
Up to a foot of wind-whipped snow had fallen in parts of Indianapolis, creating hazardous driving conditions. Pagano said he arrived at the team complex so early, he had no trouble driving. And though he considered moving up the scheduled afternoon practice so players could return home, Pagano decided against it because forecasters were hopeful the road conditions would improve as the snow tapered off late in the afternoon.
The snowiest day of the year was no deterrent for Pagano, who returned to the team complex Monday, met briefly with players who gave him a standing ovation, and spent about 30 minutes answering questions from reporters. On Wednesday, he strolled onto the team's indoor practice field for the first time in three months, presided over the full-scale practice in the afternoon and savored every precious moment.
“Any time you just get removed from where you're supposed to be on a daily basis — I've been doing this for the last 28 years of my life and then all of a sudden to be taken away from it, and then to be blessed to get back before the end of the season — it's a great feeling,” he said. “It's just good to be back around the players and practice and coaching again.”
Playing to win what would normally be a meaningless game is a stark contrast from previous Colts playoff years. Starters were routinely held out of late-season games that had no bearing on playoff position.
The most glaring example came in 2009 when the Colts were 14-0, yet yanked their starters in the third quarter of a home game against the New York Jets. Indy lost the game, played some starters one series the next week in snowy Buffalo, and lost a few weeks later to New Orleans in the Super Bowl.
But after making this year's historic turnaround from 2-14 to 10-5, and enduring the emotional roller coaster of losing a head coach for 12 weeks and now getting him back, the Colts want to play. They are locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed and will open the playoffs on the road against the AFC's No. 4 seed, Baltimore or New England.
Players embraced Pagano's choice.
“I think there is something to be said about keeping your momentum going and I think it could be a positive thing,” outside linebacker Dwight Freeney said. “I think guys who are banged up, they shouldn't play. But I think that guys who can play, should play. Yeah, you're risking getting hurt, but that's just what it is. It's part of the game.”
The Colts want to win this one for another reason: their coach.
With Pagano out, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians went 9-3, tying the league record for wins after a midseason coaching change. He led the Colts within one victory of the second-greatest turnaround in league history with nine more wins than the previous season.
Pagano, though, was fighting a much larger battle. On Nov. 5, his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, announced that the cancer was in complete remission. A month later, Pagano completed the final round of treatment and last week Cripe told reporters Pagano had been given medical clearance to return to the sideline.
“I think we're really getting everything back to normal, but I think everyone in the building is just glad to have him around,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “We want things rolling like we've had, but with Chuck added.”
Pagano did say center Samson Satele and backup running back Delone Carter would miss the Texans game because of ankle injuries. He made it clear a handful of others such as running back Donald Brown and defensive end Cory Redding could wind up on the bench to recover from injuries.
Otherwise, Pagano expects this to be just another game week.
“We're going to approach it just like we approached the first three and the way they approached the last 12,” he said. “We'd all like to win 11 games, that's our goal and that's our focus.”