Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Pagano's Colts: Will they fight or fold?

His players describe Chuck Pagano as long-winded, and the Indianapolis Colts' coach's fiery postgame speeches prove it. There is no shortage of passion, perspective, or words.
He was not his loquacious self in the locker room at Heinz Field Sunday night. Not after that.
“You can see this as a sign or as a test,” Pagano told his team.
What else was there to say? What words were apt after the Colts were utterly undressed, embarrassed, routed by the Pittsburgh Steelers for a second straight year in the same venue and in the same fashion? This 35-point drubbing was their most lopsided defeat of the season, by a 23-point margin. It sunk them to 6-6. It humbled them like no game this year has. It left doubts about whether they have the moxie to make it through all of this.
A day later, these Colts face a reality they haven’t in three years: A December that will make or break their season.
“We’re not going to sit there and wallow in self pity or any of that bullcrap,” an enlivened Pagano said Monday.
They reach the three-quarter pole of the season at .500, tied for first place in the AFC South — yeah, a 6-6 record will do that — and owning the tiebreaker over the Houston Texans. Indianapolis travels to Jacksonville this week to face a Jaguars team they’ve beaten six consecutive times dating back to 2012. The following week they’ll face Houston, a game that very likely will decide the division winner.
Unlike the past two Decembers, when their AFC South title was wrapped up neatly by Christmas, the Colts are not afforded the opportunity to coast during the holidays. The Colts clinched the division title in Week 14 two seasons back and in Week 15 last year. This time around, there is still plenty of work ahead of them, with no guarantee there will be January football.
“This is different,” said tight end Dwayne Allen. “We’ve never experienced this. We believe it’s a test of our character as a team and an organization. Are we going to fold it up? Or are we going to dig down deep and go out there and do what we need to do to get in the playoffs?”
They did plenty of the former — folding it up — Sunday night in the Steel City. Gift-wrapped two turnovers in the first quarter, the Colts’ offense mustered just three points. They finished 3-for-14 on third downs. The defense allowed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 364 yards and four touchdowns, which was — sadly — a slight improvement from last year’s bloodbath.
Put simply: The Colts resembled nothing of a playoff team Sunday night. They’ve dug themselves this hole; it’s up to them to find a way out of it.
Pagano’s message to them in the postgame locker room, and again on Monday, was simple. They have four games to decide what kind of team they are. Four games to save this season, or to sink it.
"We made a decision today that we’re going to put this one behind us,” Pagano said. “We’re going to attack each day with everything that we have.”
He continued, his pace speeding up with each passing word, his intensity rising. It was clear. Pagano knows what at stake over the coming month.
Everything.
“We’re sitting in Vegas,” he said of his team, “and I don’t know if you have $50,000 in front of you or $50. We’re putting everything in, all of our chips in. We got a month left, and it all starts this week. All we need to be is 1-0 on Sunday afternoon at 4:05 eastern time.”
On their side: No team over the last decade has dominated its division like the Colts. Indianapolis currently is sitting on a 16-game win streak in the AFC South, an NFL record, and hasn’t lost a division game in nearly three full seasons. They’ll face a division foe in three of their final four games, with a road date in Miami sandwiched in between.
“We’ve got to lock it in the last month of the season and position ourselves where we want to be in January,” cornerback Darius Butler said.
Thus begs the obvious question: Why the sudden impetus now? Why not, say, Sunday night, around 8:30 p.m. in Pittsburgh?
Pagano was exceptionally succinct after the game, his NFL-high sixth loss (including playoffs) of 29 points or more as Colts’ head coach. He didn't have answers as much as generalities. He was fuming. This one stung.
"They blocked better than we rushed,” he said, rightly so.
“We couldn’t generate any pass rush,” he added, rightly so.
“Our guys competed their asses off,” he clarified. “We didn’t play well.”
On Monday, after dissecting the tape and speaking to his team, he was more measured. He’d moved on. He sounded like a man itching for the week’s first practice to start. There's work to be done.
“The record is what it is,” Pagano said. “Last night, it is what it is. The sun came up (today), we have another ballgame (on Sunday), we’re at the three-quarter pole. You got three division games, two at home, a huge, huge one on the road this week. We control our own destiny. Everything is still out there in front of you.”
It is. Four tests await them; the results of those games will determine this team’s postseason fate — and perhaps so much more. Missing the postseason, in this downtrodden decision, seems inexcusable, especially for a franchise that began the year with such lofty ambitions. For now, that’s the first step.
Make the playoffs. Avoid disaster. Keep the ship afloat.
“No matter how you get in, you can run in, you can limp in,” Pagano said. “The whole idea is to get in.”
Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.
Colts at Jaguars, 1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
BLOWOUT LOSSES
The Colts have lost an NFL-high six games since 2012 by 29 or more points. Remarkably, they have a .636 winning percentage in that time, 200-400 points more than the three teams that have lost five such blowouts:
TEAM BO W L PCT.
Indianapolis 6 42 24 0.636
N.Y. Jets 5 25 35 0.417
Oakland 5 16 44 0.267
Jacksonville 5 13 47 0.217

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