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Pagano deserves credit for triumph

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Few tasks in this world are harder to do than take a critical shot at Tony Dungy.

Especially since he was the difference between pretty good and great. And particularly because he personifies class and is arguably the best thing to ever come the Colts’ way.

But here goes.

Dungy, for all his mastery as a head coach, for all the division titles and 12-win seasons, for all the playoff runs, the Lombardi Trophy and the unbelievable magic he performed in Indy, had one irritating proclivity that, in this scribe’s humble opinion, likely cost the Colts another Super Bowl title or two.

He was a firm believer in “resting” starters.

Fortunately for the Colts, Chuck Pagano is not.

As a result, maybe — just maybe — the momentum the Colts have built since Week 7 will pay off when and where they need it most: in the playoffs.

Sunday’s 28-16 thumping of AFC South champion Houston in the regular-season finale capped a spectacular 9-2 stretch that began Oct. 21 with a 17-13 win against Cleveland. The Colts’ only losses during that span were against New England, the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, and the No. 3 seed Texans — the latter occurring three weeks ago.

With all due respect to Dungy, who deserves that and then some, Pagano sees the value in keeping the throttle open. He didn’t “rest” anybody who was healthy enough to play and play well.

With nothing more at stake than pride, Pagano went for the win and got it.

Good for him, and even better for the Colts.

No point in slowing down a barreling train at a critical junction. Pagano drove the point home in a team meeting the night before the game.

“We talked about mojo and momentum,” Pagano said. “When you catch fire and when you get hot, anything in the world can happen. So to be able to play our guys and for them to be able to do what they did with another win and go 7-1 at home, and go into the playoffs with that kind of feeling, anything can happen.

“We just catch fire.”

The fifth-seeded Colts are, in fact, red-hot heading into Sunday’s wild-card game at No. 4 seed Baltimore. Rest assured, that would not be the case had Pagano subscribed to the Dungy philosophy of “resting” starters.

Do the Colts beat Houston — which was playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — with Andrew Luck coming out after one series? Do they win with Reggie Wayne and T.Y Hilton — and Vick Ballard and Dwayne Allen — watching for three quarters? Do they take a two-game winning streak into the postseason with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney and Antoine Bethea and Vontae Davis “resting” in the second half?

No, no and no.

Pagano understands as much. More importantly, so do players.

“That’s what the playoffs are about, getting into the playoffs and peaking at the right time,” Bethea said. “I think we’re doing a great job of peaking and playing well. Whoever we have to go against, we’ll be ready.”

As evidenced by playoff flame-outs past, that wasn’t always the case during the Dungy years. Too many times a postseason filled with championship promise ended in bitter disappointment — despite having a wealth of “rested” starters.

Although the Colts made the playoffs in each of Dungy’s seven seasons, they were one-and-done four times. They failed to get past the second round five times.

On paper, with Peyton Manning and assorted stars, they were were much better than that.

In theory, with a division title locked up and playoff seeding dialed in, not exposing key starters to injury in meaningless Week 15 and 16 games makes sense. In reality, it always seems to dull a sharp edge.

Tough as it is to second-guess Dungy strategy, it’s easy to embrace Pagano’s.

Injuries, after all, can’t be managed. Momentum, to a degree, can.

Nothing spoils it like interrupting it.

“We talked about the Midas Touch, the uncanny ability to where everything you touch turns to gold,” Pagano said. “This team can go as far as they want to.”

With the wind at their backs, it’s hard to disagree.

Harder, even, than second-guessing Dungy.

Rick Morwick is sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to rmorwick@dailyjournal.net.

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