Analysis: Sunday is vital for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano

It's not a must win, but the Colts must at least be competitive against the visiting Patriots to strengthen their coach's future.

Just another game? Well, it’s fair to say Sunday’s matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots can’t be just another blowout for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.

His future couldn’t be more uncertain. All media speculation aside, he’s in a contract year and it’s just common sense to deduce that another ugly loss to the defending Super Bowl champs won’t strengthen his position at the bargaining table.

It’s not a must-win to save his job. But at the very least, Pagano’s 10.5-point underdogs must be competitive at Lucas Oil Stadium. The last four times, they haven’t been. Even if you throw out a 59-24 loss when Pagano was in the hospital battling leukemia in 2012, the other three outcomes continued an unmistakable trend: 43-22, 42-20, 45-7.

Pagano supporters will argue he has a 39-20 overall record since taking over a 2-14 team in January of 2012.

Pagano critics will counter he’s 19-2 against the AFC South, which has been one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, and just 20-18 against everyone else.

Pagano supports will insist the coach can only do so much with what he’s given, that general manager Ryan Grigson is responsible for buying the right groceries.

Pagano critics will fire back that the coach was given quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall selection in 2012, and the three-time Pro Bowl passer is the reason this franchise became a playoff team in three consecutive years.

Put all of that aside and ask yourself an obvious question: If the Colts get blown out again by the Patriots, how much confidence will you have in just staying the course after this season?

Granted, January is still months away and the playoffs can change perspective in a heartbeat. If the Colts got on a roll and were able to somehow defeat New England in the postseason, that would change everything.

But another bad loss Sunday night suggests that won’t happen, that it’s impossible.

Pagano is beloved by his players. He is, by definition, a players’ coach. There’s something to be said for togetherness and fostering a positive atmosphere in the locker room.

But if you’re owner Jim Irsay, the NFL is about winning championships. He’s continually mentioned the quest for undeniable excellence, and that’s not just winning one title but hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in back-to-back years.

Greatness is what drives the boss. It’s not coming close. Or, to be fair, beating most teams but being unable to come close against the likes to the Patriots. And last season, it wasn’t just New England. It was Pittsburgh (51-34) and Dallas (42-7), too.

This isn’t a debate about the character or affable nature of a head coach. He has been an inspiration for beating cancer, when the “ChuckStrong” movement galvanized not just a fan base but the city.

He’s produced a continual winner, something so many other NFL cities would do anything to achieve.

This, however, is about if he can accomplish an incredibly challenging mission. As Pagano has reminded more than once, he knows what he signed up for when he took the job.

Sunday night is just another game on the schedule for both teams. A Colts loss still means they’re in first place in the AFC South. There will still be 10 games to play to get it together and instill hope for the playoffs.

But another bad Colts loss will sure seem like foreshadowing. And if the future is merely a re-run or playoffs past, accepting that reality doesn’t define greatness.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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