On Wednesday, not too long after Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie offered a devastating account of why he fired Chip Kelly after just one losing season -- get used to hearing about "emotional intelligence" during the next hiring cycle -- Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano said he might not choose who plays quarterback from a raft of journeymen options until Sunday morning.
Those two cases summed up the fragility of success in the NFL and the tumult likely to be visited on a number of teams in the coming days. In Philadelphia, the Eagles could no longer abide Kelly after his palace coup succeeded but he failed as an autocrat and as a personnel evaluator. In Indianapolis, there is no shortage of emotional intelligence in Pagano, or success -- playoff appearances in each of his first three seasons, including a trip to the AFC Championship Game last year -- but he could be going the way of Kelly, too.
The final week of the regular season is the oddest of times in the NFL, cleaved cleanly between teams that are energized by the coming postseason -- even if they are eliminated in their last regular-season game -- and those that are trudging across the finish line, dragging their already-packed bags behind them. The Eagles are clearly in the latter. But the Colts are not quite in the former, straddling the awkward middle ground between mathematical viability and real-world futility.
The Colts need nine things -- nine -- to go their way on Sunday to win the AFC South again and return to the playoffs. Among the more unlikely parts of that parlay is that the Colts have to win while, perhaps, having to start someone they signed off the street this week to play quarterback. It would be comical what has happened to the Colts' quarterbacks this season if it didn't involve so many painful injuries to players and so many careers hanging in the balance. But this week, the Coltssigned two players off the street -- including Josh Freeman, late of the Brooklyn Bolts -- to join Stephen Morris and one of them will have to start Sunday against Tennessee in a game that actually matters.
That Pagano is on the hot seat at all has been one of the ongoing bewilderments of this season. The Colts are 40-23 on his watch and Pagano remains an inspiration to those battling cancer. But when he rejected a one-year extension last offseason, all while owner Jim Irsay talked openly about his post-Manning desire to win multiple championships with Luck, Pagano suddenly became the most vulnerable of coaches, to the puzzlement of much of the rest of the NFL.
There have been concerns that Pagano, with a defensive background, has not been able to build a defensive powerhouse in Indianapolis and that the Colts have started slow in games and been outscored in the second halves of games. That the Colts are in position to finish 8-8 and to, theoretically, return to the playoffs, though, should actually be a credit to Pagano and his coaches rather than their death knell. Pagano had to fire offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton -- who had been the choice of general manager Ryan Grigson -- when Luck and the offense struggled immediately, especially behind a porous offensive line that was not shored up in the offseason. At 3-5, the season was on the edge of slipping away. Then, Luck and the Colts had their best game of the season, defeating the Denver Broncos to get to 4-5.
And then the bottom dropped nearly all the way out, with Luck suffering a lacerated kidney that cost him the rest of the season. With new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski trying to call a game suited for a West Coast quarterback -- and a 40-year-old who shouldn't take too many hits -- Matt Hasselbeck won two in a row (while sick) with coaches wondering every time he was knocked down whether he would get up.
Blowout losses to the Steelersand Jaguars with a battered Hasselbeck seemed to seal Pagano's fate, but that might obscure the bigger picture. The Colts could finish 8-8 despite having to play more than half their season without their best player and with a hodgepodge of quarterbacks and an offensive line that was a mess from the start. If they win on Sunday with whoever is the quarterback, they would be 6-3 with backup quarterbacks. The Dallas Cowboys, among others, would take those results. So, too, would a host of teams that had their starting quarterback intact the entire season.
Inside the building, the strain has worn on Pagano, even as he has steadied the team. His mantra during the ongoing challenges: "So what? Now what?" according to one team source.
We got a glimpse of Pagano's approach in an amusing press conference Wednesday, when he was asked if the mind-boggling series of events with quarterbacks is symbolic of a season with challenges from the very start.
"Oh yeah, just the coup de grâce," Pagano said with a laugh. "We wouldn't want it any different. I love it. No, I love it. It's so perfect. Perfect storm, it's a perfect storm. I just can't wait to see what last chapter holds when it gets written 4:30 on Sunday. It'll be awesome."
"I will fight my ass off to be the coach here, yeah," Pagano said. "I'm worried about Tennessee right now. But do I want to be the coach here? Yes."
That might no longer be in Pagano's control, but he said this week he does not regret rejecting the contract extension last offseason. After this Sunday, Pagano's future could be elsewhere. It would seem to be a fitting, if unfair, conclusion to a perplexing season.
Three games with significant playoff implications
There are a multitude of games that have at least glancing postseason ramifications -- most of them for seeding -- but these are the three games with the most on the line:
1) It's ironic that Todd Bowles now has the Jets team Rex Ryan always imagined:an offense that can score points and throw the ball to accompany an effective running game and a powerful defense. That's why Bowles needs only to beat Ryan's Billsto secure a wild-card spot for the Jets, while the Bills will be home for another postseason. Buffalo has produced the best total offense (365.3 yards per game) and the best scoring offense (23.8 points per game) of any team with Ryan as its head coach, but the worst total defense (360.1 yards per game) with Ryan at the helm. If the Jets' top-ranked rushing defense can neutralize the Bills' top-ranked rushing offense -- which will be a lot easier with LeSean McCoy sidelined -- it could come down to whether the Bills' defense can hold up against a Jets offense that, during their five-game winning streak, has averaged 27.2 points per game. Do not discount the importance of emotion for either side -- Ryan will want to knock his old team out, and Bowles will have to manage the Jets' focus after an emotional win over the rival Patriots.
2) Here is what Sunday means to the Denver Broncos: They could end the day with the AFC's top overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Or they could wind up as a wild card and immediately have to hit the road. Or it could be something in between. A first-round bye certainly would help to get the quarterback -- and we're talking about Brock Osweiler, not Peyton Manning -- fully healthy for the playoffs. It seems unlikely now that Manning will see the field again, barring an injury to Osweiler, who has an injured non-throwing shoulder but who proved his mettle with a scintillating second half and overtime against the Bengals. This game, then, should be about getting the first-round bye, at least, and about keeping the offense out of the slump that it finally broke from against the Bengals by going with a no-huddle, up-tempo attack.
3) It's an uphill battle for Pittsburgh. The Steelershave to win, and hope for a Jets loss, to make the playoffs as a wild card. They have to avoid another lackluster performance by their offense, like the one they suffered against Baltimore, to do it. The Steelers are averaging 9.2 fewer points per game on the road, but Cleveland's scoring defense is ranked 29th in the league. To complicate matters for the Browns, Johnny Manziel is out with a concussion and will be replaced by Austin Davis. The rest of the AFC playoff field should send the Browns a fruit basket to thank them if they can help keep one of the game's most explosive offenses out of the postseason.