Occupying center stage are Tom Brady and Andrew Luck.
Unquestionably the marquee attractions in Saturday’s divisional playoff showdown at New England, the outcome is all but certain to hinge on their performances.
But behind the scenes a concurrent drama will play out — one not nearly as visible but no less critical to the final result.
That would be the sideline chess match between two men who are distinct opposites in almost every imaginable way.
From experience to resume to accomplishment to personality, Bill Belichick and Chuck Pagano have nothing in common, apart from being NFL head coaches.
One has a handful of Super Bowl jewelry but is universally loathed.
The other has no bling but is, if not universally, at least more widely, loved.
You know which is which.
Belichick, the hooded evil genius with a perpetual sour countenance, is the coach America — with the possible exception of New Englanders — loves to hate. For myriad reasons. “Spygate,” abrasive manner and arrogance are just a few.
But love him or loath him, in a bottom-line business, few coaches in NFL history have done the job better than Belichick. And he’s been doing it for a long time.
In his 19th season as an NFL head coach, Belichick is in his 14th season with the Patriots. On his watch, they’ve been to five Super Bowls and won three. They’ve won 11 division championships and are in the playoffs for the 11th time.
Moreover, Belichick — who was Cleveland’s head coach for five seasons in the mid-1990s — is a three-time Coach of the Year who guided the Browns to the playoffs in 1994.
Famously stoic, prickly, distant and cold, Belichick is nonetheless the best in the business. Period. Achievement speaks for itself.
Engaging, personable and by all outward appearances likeable, he’s in the infancy of a head coaching career that seems destined for distinction.
A leukemia survivor whose well-documented illness dramatically cut short his first season, Pagano inherited a team that was — and is — rebuilding from the basement up. Despite a largely no-name roster and the NFL’s longest injury list, his team is in the playoffs for the second straight year and is in the second round for the first time.
On Pagano’s watch, the Colts have finished 11-5 each season and entered this postseason as AFC South champions.
And to date, that’s it.
But Saturday, Pagano, the master motivator, has a chance to enhance his resume in a test of wits against Belichick, the grand strategist. Execution will decide it, but preparation will, in many ways, dictate execution.
Apart from the Brady/Luck show, that’s what makes this divisional playoff game so intriguing. Virtually every edge, including the sideline, seems to belong to New England. But as anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the Colts knows, edges don’t matter.
Somehow, someway, they find a way. Much of it is Luck, but a lot of it is Pagano. If he has proven nothing else in less than two full seasons on the job, it’s that no job is too much of a job.
Ask San Francisco. Ask Seattle. Ask Denver. Ask Kansas City.
Granted, Saturday’s challenge is like no other. It’s a divisional playoff. It’s at New England. It’s outdoors on the East Coast. It’s against Brady and Belichick.
Count the Colts out? The odds scream yes.
Just don’t bet your hoodie on it.
Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal, a sister paper of The Tribune. Send comments to email@example.com.