Somehow, after being buried by 35 points in each of the past two weeks, Chuck Pagano sounded as confident Friday as he has ever been in his four-year tenure as Indianapolis Colts head coach.
Perhaps it’s just positive posturing for his players’ sake, but Pagano spoke with the utmost certainty that his struggling team will show up Sunday against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium in a showdown of 6-7 teams that likely decides the AFC South Division title.
Not just show up, Pagano assured, but play well with an offense led by 40-year-old backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck playing through a painful rib separation and a defense that has allowed 96 points in the past two weeks.
NFL teams bounce back all the time on a weekly basis, but seriously, how can Pagano be so sure?
“I just know the character of this football team,” he said. “I know what’s in their DNA and I know how they’re wired. They’re going to play really, really good. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but they’re going to play really good football. And yeah, we had a great week of practice.”
Quarterback Andrew Luck hasn’t been cleared to try on a Superman cape, but the Colts are expected to have several key players return from injuries, most notably offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo and inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
The O-line has struggled for much of the season and now it must contend with All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt among others. Nobody need be reminded the Colts are one nasty hit on Hasselbeck away from Charlie Whitehurst in this battle of backup quarterbacks — the Texans are relying on T.J. Yates, who has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season. Yates has one of the NFL's best pass catchers in DeAndre Hopkins, who is sure to be covered by cornerback Vontae Davis and could be the most important matchup of the game, aside from the Colts' pass protection.
Pagano was asked an obvious question about if he’ll be closely monitoring Hasselbeck, who admitted Thursday he’s had difficulty breathing without pain because of the rib issue.
But Pagano didn’t give the expected answer, instead saying something that sounded as close to a guarantee as has ever been offered.
“We’re going to block and we’re going to protect,” he said. “Our line and our tight ends and our backs are going to do a phenomenal job — best job they’ve done all year to keep (Hasselbeck) clean and upright.
“We’re going to run the football. We’re going to have success running the football and that’s obviously going to help. We’re going to keep him healthy and we’re going to keep him upright.”
The Colts haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 53 consecutive games counting the playoffs. Frank Gore did rush for a season-high 98 yards in a 27-20 win at Houston on Nov. 8, but the 32-year-old back has been running into a wall most weeks. He’s averaging 2.8 yards per carry in the past six games with only one rushing score.
“I just want to win,” Gore said. “As long as we win and get our opportunity to take more steps to be able to go to the postseason, that’s the key.”
The 11th-year pro admitted this season isn’t what he expected, nor did he envision when he signed with the Colts in the offseason that this team touted by many as a “legit” Super Bowl contender could be in such a precarious position in mid-December.
“We win, we keep moving,” he said. “We lose, we’re out there wish and hope.”
As in wishing and hoping for the Texans to somehow stumble in the final two weeks and let the Colts back in. Anything is possible, considering both teams have losing records, but a Colts’ sweep of the Texans would all but knock Houston out of the running for the division title because they wouldn’t have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who has had his share of monster games against the Texans in recent years, reminded that the visitors have never won in Indianapolis in 13 visits.
“We’re very confident,” Hilton said. “This is one that we have to win and we should win. They struggle coming in here. We’re going to get their best football and they’re going to get our best football.”
But outside linebacker Erik Walden was one of many players to say the past Texans downfalls don’t mean anything come Sunday. And Walden acknowledged the Colts have made it hard on themselves. He didn’t play last week due to a nagging heel injury, but said there was no way he could sit this one out.
“We dug ourselves in this hole, so we’ve got to dig ourselves out,” he said. “Perfect scenario, playing Houston at home to get the lead and just finish strong.”
Honestly, how can the Colts really pull this off?
“It’s simple,” Walden said. “We’ve just got to man up.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.