INDIANAPOLIS – After the roaring crowds and the emotional victory, after the wild postgame celebration and the poignant news conference on Sunday, Chuck Pagano stepped into a quickly emptying Indianapolis Colts locker room.
The coach who'd spent the fall in the hell of chemotherapy, only to dramatically return to duty, was surrounded by a small crowd of well-wishers – Colts players, Colts employees, even Colts media looking to give him a congratulatory hug or a quick welcome back.
Out of the corner of his eye, Pagano noticed Andrew Luck was still packing up at his locker. Pagano broke free from the group and headed over. They shared a hug, a smile and a few quick words before exchanging a loud hand slap. They each looked excited at the challenge ahead, namely at the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"Just go play," Pagano advised Luck, and maybe that's as complex as it needs to be with the pre-naturally mature Stanford product.
"Hopefully it's a good matchup," Luck said simply.
[Related: AFC wild-card predictions]
The Colts have become the Pagano Story and for good reason; it's inspiring, amazing, emotional. Yet as much as the coach talks about mojo and magic and how the Colts, even in his absence, have built themselves into a monster, success in the playoffs, more likely than not, will fall on the golden arm of his rookie QB.
The guy who took on the burden of being not just the No. 1 overall draft pick but a prospect so promising that the Colts let Peyton Manning walk out the door. The guy who took a two-win team and delivered 11 victories, which included leading seven game-winning drives in either the fourth quarter or overtime. The guy who threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns (plus five more on the ground). And perhaps most important, the guy who found ways to shake off inevitable failure only to cheerily move on to the next challenge, arguably the most important character trait the position demands.
Luck has been brilliant by virtually any rookie standard, but whether it's the pyrotechnic play of Robert Griffin III in a bigger media market or the late-season rise of Seattle's Russell Wilson, or the uplifting story of Pagano, he's slid a bit under the radar of late.
He's spearheaded the ascent of the worst team in the league into the playoffs, despite losing his head coach for ten games, and yet is a long shot for rookie of the year.
Not that Pagano would choose to head into battle in Baltimore with any of the other guys.
There's solidness to Luck that belies his age. The pressure of the playoffs on a rookie quarterback, on the road, with Ray Lewis returning? No one seems worried about No. 12.
"He's prepared himself for that," Pagano said. "It's a tough, tough place to play, like many venues on the road. But I think Andrew is mature enough and far enough along that he isn't going to let anything distract him or take away from his focus or his preparation."
Luck, for his part, is taking it as a challenge he's worked his entire life toward. He's confident in what he can do, respectful of what he doesn't know, and eager to take it all on.
"I know the payoffs will be unchartered territory for a lot of rookies," he said of himself and his youthful roster. "But [we've] got Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Adam Vinatieri who has been in however many playoff games. We'll lean on them early in the week to figure out how does it work, what to do and then I think we'll just work like we always have and respect the process."
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Les Carpenter on NFL coaching carousel]Luck didn't arrive here all scared or starry-eyed, the same way Pagano didn't arrive from the staff of those Ravens with a rebuilding attitude. So what if the Colts won two games in 2011 and lost a slew of proven players in reworking the roster. Pagano was here to win, telling the Colts from the start of offseason sessions that they were going to "build a monster" that defied every outside opinion of their limits. Luck was sold. Youth, inexperience, holes in the roster … none of it mattered.
"As a team," Luck said, "we've been confident in ourselves all year. Even OTAs, training camp, it's always been a very confident locker room."
So confident that it could handle a 1-2 start, including a loss to Jacksonville and their head coach being diagnosed with leukemia and still rolling into the playoffs.
"[We] have a little mojo going in," Luck said, channeling one of Pagano's favorite words.
The stakes are higher now though. The pressure greater. The opponent better – "an historic defense," Luck noted.
"We understand the magnitude of it," Pagano said. "And we understand it's win or go home. He understands it. We all understand that. He's played in big games. And he's going to be in a hostile environment. He's been in hostile environments [all season]."
This is but the first of likely many high-pressure playoff games in Andrew Luck's career, so win, lose or disaster, the season can only be considered a wild success for player and team alike.
Still, that isn't the thinking that got everyone here.
"It's great [to make the playoffs] but it's definitely not over by any means," Luck said. "We're not happy just to be in. That's not the end of the journey by any means."
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