Chuck Pagano's path comes full circle

A heartbreaking AFC Championship Game loss at New England allowed the Colts to hire Chuck Pagano as head coach. Now he returns to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots again on Sunday with another Super Bowl berth on the line.

The New England Patriots will have themselves to blame if they lose to the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Perhaps if they don’t play well, but most definitely if the Colts outperform them.

That’s because the man leading the Colts into Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., landed his head coaching job after losing in this same stadium with a Super Bowl on the line just three years ago.

Chuck Pagano was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator in 2011. The Ravens had the Patriots on the ropes in the final minute. Joe Flacco floated a 14-yard pass into the end zone to Lee Evans, who caught it.

For a moment.

As the Baltimore sideline began to celebrate, the Patriots’ Sterling Moore knocked the ball loose from Evans. No touchdown.

After a third-and-1 pass fell incomplete, the Ravens were resigned to settling for a game-tying field goal to force overtime. But Billy Cundiff hooked the 32-yard chip shot wide left with 11 seconds remaining.

No overtime. No Super Bowl.

But had Baltimore prevailed, the Colts might not have waited two more weeks to interview Pagano, who was actually rewarded amid his heartbreak and named head coach in Indianapolis three days after that memorable loss.

Was Pagano still stewing about that loss when he interviewed with Colts general manager Ryan Grigson?

“I still am to be honest with you,” Pagano said Thursday after practice. “It’s so hard, as you guys know, as everybody in this room knows, to win football games. It’s so hard to get to this point. All the sacrifice, all the blood, sweat and tears that these players and coaches, everything that they sacrificed and to be that close and not have an opportunity to go play for it all, when you think back on it, it still sits in your craw.

“So now I’m just fortunate and we’re all fortunate to have another opportunity to advance. We know that we’ve got to focus on one thing and one thing only, and that’s our preparation for this game.”

When Pagano started anew, one of his first phone calls was to defensive end Cory Redding. He told the Ravens team leader, who had become a free agent, he had to have him in Indianapolis. Redding signed with the Colts.

“Why did I pick the Colts?” Redding said Wednesday. “Because Chuck came over here.

“I know what kind of guy he is, stand-up guy, shoots it straight to you, fun, energetic at practice, expects a lot out of you in the meeting rooms to know your stuff. Very excited that he got the head coaching job here and I was a free agent, so knowing the system, knowing him, it was just easy for me to make the decision.”

Simple as that, although Redding was joining a team that had finished an NFL-worst 2-14, had released quarterback Peyton Manning, had sizable salary cap concerns moving forward, and had put their faith in rebuilding around its No. 1 overall draft selection, quarterback Andrew Luck.

“The confidence was knowing that Chuck was the head coach, knowing that the system that we’re bringing over I’m very familiar with and knowing that the system that we’re building here with the right guys can be very dangerous.”

Redding insists he never looked back, even when the Ravens went back to New England the next postseason, defeated the Patriots 28-13 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Before a question about if he had unfinished business against the Patriots could be finished, Redding was shaking his head.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s just we have a prime opportunity to play in a big game against the Patriots at their house this year. Forget the past. All the other stuff that happened in the past, that’s back then. I’m worried about now.”

Last offseason, the Colts signed Redding’s Baltimore understudy, defensive tackle Arthur Jones. He smiles when remembering how the Ravens responded to such a heartbreaking loss to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But almost just as quickly, Jones recalls what led up to that.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said Wednesday of beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl year, “and then the year before. That still bothers me right now. It was a nasty feeling. A hostile environment, you think you’re going to have the job done, then you question yourself, if I would have did that much better or if I would have got off the line that much quicker.”

And what of that Flacco pass that could have been a touchdown? Or that missed field goal?

“You can’t really blame them. It’s a team sport,” Jones said. “You think about the sack I missed. It’s a lot of what ifs. You can’t play the what if game. They were the better team that day. We used that as fuel to the fire the following year.”

Pagano recalled getting settled at the Colts complex in his new job, and a conversation he had with his wife, Tina.

“Yeah, she said, ‘You better go to work,’” Pagano said Wednesday with a laugh. “‘You’ve got no choice. You took the damn job, now get it done.’”

Pagano had to overcome leukemia in an emotional “ChuckStrong” outpouring of public affection during that first season in 2012. Chemotherapy and treatment robbed him of his hair and nine games on the sideline, but his fighting spirit inspired the Colts and fans, whose solidarity included shaving their heads. And the team, led by interim coach Bruce Arians, won for Pagano, who made it back cancer-free at season’s end.

The Colts have won 11 regular-season games in each of his three years. Last season ended with a 43-22 AFC Divisional playoff loss at New England in a Gillette Stadium that has been a house of horrors for the Colts’ franchise dating back to the Manning era as well as for Pagano.

But it’s also brought the coach back to where his NFL journey took a fateful detour. Pagano looks forward to another opportunity to reach the Super Bowl. It’s fitting that he and the touchdown-underdog Colts should have to defeat the Patriots to achieve that objective.

“I just feel very fortunate,” he said. “The irony of the whole deal, how this all transpired, I just feel very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in and things have gone the way they’ve gone because we all know it’s really hard to win football games in the National Football League. I credit the staff and those players. They’ve made it happen.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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