Indianapolis Colts' fairy tale continues as Chuck Pagano returns

KANSAS CITY -- Bolting from the field in a fit of thrill, Indianapolis Colts interim coach Bruce Arians threw his arms toward the sky as he exited down a tunnel enveloped by rowdy visitors in a corner of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

His fans were cheering him -- deservedly so -- for delivering them a playoff berth with a 20-13 win Sunday that was only a minute old and less than one year after their Colts finished 2-14 as the worst team in football.

Soak this up, Bruce. You deserve it. Pay attention, those of you responsible for choosing this season's NFL Coach of the Year. He deserves that, too.

Alas, this is not yet about the future of Arians or the Colts or any awards or playoff games. Sometimes, when it comes to a story like this one, it is about the present. It is about staring at the pictures for a few extra seconds before flipping to the next page of this incredible and ongoing fairy tale.

Head coach Chuck Pagano returns to work Monday, less than three months after being diagnosed with leukemia, resetting a staff that will go back to having Arians serve as the team's offensive coordinator. It will be a seamless transition, players said Sunday. The ball will keep rolling just as it has for the nine wins in 12 games since Pagano's absence began.

"It will be an extra special Christmas, and I'm sure they'll be a lot of emotions when he walks through the door," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "But his presence is already felt so much in this building."

As noble as everything is that Arians has done to this point, perhaps his greatest, most altruistic action has been the way in which he has kept Pagano's presence felt in the Colts' facility while the coach instead spent his days in a hospital bed.

Take Sunday, for example. Arians coached the game while wearing a blue Chuckstrong T-shirt under his jacket. Pagano's spirit -- his philosophies and his voice -- have been a constant. That's an impressive and understated feat, given that this staff came together with the Colts only eight months before Pagano's diagnosis.

"(Arians) came in and filled some big shoes and did a great job keeping everybody together," wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. "It could have been very easy for us to lose focus. We could have gone into the tank. He was able to to keep everybody into it. He is not forgotten. And trust me, he is going to be vocal anyway."

This team, of course, is not without major vulnerabilities, as put on display Sunday in an ugly game that didn't feel won until Andrew Luck put together his seventh game-winning drive in the fourth quarter -- a 13-play series that went 73 yards. The Colts gave up far too many yards (352) on the ground. Luck was still inconsistent during the first three quarters of a lethargic game from the Colts' offense.

While that has been the Colts' identity -- to win games in the end -- it is a slightly frightening prospect heading into the postseason. But that, no doubt, has been part of what has made this season so fun, so incredible, as the Colts now wait to find out who they'll play in their first playoff game in two weeks.

When that happens, Pagano will be the man in charge. He is not returning to the sidelines in a limited capacity, but instead with the expectation that he will resume full responsibilities of a head coach. That's an awfully heavy burden, and while certainly inspiring, worthy of wonder about if he'll have the strength to endure this relentless grind of long hours and little sleep.

The road ahead will be a tough one. With the AFC's six playoff teams set -- the Colts are joined by the Texans, Broncos, Patriots, Ravens and Bengals -- any opponent will provide an intense and difficult challenge for this young Indy squad. Then again, it hasn't exactly been a breeze to this point, and Indianapolis has somehow managed to hang around.

As we inevitably do turn the page toward the next chapter of this story, we will find a team still inspired. We will find two men, both Arians and Pagano, prepared to continue their efforts to keep this team headed in a proper direction. We will find a team that is proud of its accomplishments; that is proud of the interim coach's effort; that is proud of the head coach's bravery.

As Arians ran through the tunnel Sunday, wearing his Chuckstrong T-shirt on a fun conclusion to an otherwise rough game, it was a moment he and this team deserved to enjoy. But there's now more to accomplish, more to pursue.

So soak it up, Bruce. But don't let it last too long. Yes, the Colts are getting Pagano back today, but they'll still need Arians to help them with tomorrow. This, all along, has been a goal reached by far more than just one man.

"We love (Pagano), and we want him to be a part of this," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "He started this journey, and we want him to be a part of it and finish it. That's something we've wanted to do all along."

Amazingly, the Colts will now get that chance.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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