Indianapolis faces strong emotional challenge by facing Green Bay without Pagano

The Indianapolis Colts split time this week between the intricacies of football and the harsh realities of life.

Before and after practice, they called and sent text messages to their ailing coach, Chuck Pagano, discussed his battle with leukemia and coped with the stunning news.

On Sunday, the Colts can finally take a break — for about three hours — when Green Bay comes to town.

"That (the football field) is where you get away from your worldly troubles, the things that are weighing on you," defensive end Cory Redding said. "That's where we get to be who we are and once the game is over, you go back to life."

It won't be easy leaving the emotional scars behind with stark reminders plastered all over Lucas Oil Stadium.

Interim coach Bruce Arians will be calling the shots for the first time in his two-decade NFL career.

Defensive players will be talking exclusively with coordinator Greg Manusky and his assistants on the sideline.

There are supposed to be new signs inside the stadium paying tribute to Pagano and a taped get-well message from Redding that will be shown on the stadium's two large Jumbotron screens before kickoff. Even the pink towels and shoes worn by the players, for breast cancer awareness month, are likely to rekindle thoughts about Pagano as he embarks on the second week of his own fight against cancer.

Pagano, who turned 52 on Tuesday, is expected to spend six to eight weeks in an Indianapolis hospital as he undergoes treatment. He is not expected to resume his full head-coaching duties this season.

So while players are psyched up to win one for Pagano, Arians is pleading with the Colts (1-2) to honor their coach by playing the way Pagano preaches — relentlessly hard.

"This is kind of our safe haven, and when we get out there, it's business as usual and we stay there, we stay focused at that moment one play at a time, one day at a time," said Arians, Indy's offensive coordinator. "That's just what we have to do. We can't get caught up (in the emotion)."

The Packers know what they're up against.

Just 8½ months ago, Green Bay walked onto its home field for a playoff game against the New York Giants less than a week after the body of a 21-year-old man was pulled out of the Fox River. It was the son of former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, now the Dolphins coach.

The best team in the NFL's regular-season in 2011 wound up losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the biggest upset of the playoffs.

Though coach Mike McCarthy calls the two scenarios completely different, he understands the Colts he sees Sunday may not resemble the team he's been watching on film all week.

"This is not a normal day for their football team, no doubt about it," McCarthy said. "I think there's going to be a ton of emotion in the building on Sunday."

Arians and the Colts have tried to keep things as normal as possible this week.

They practiced and met at the same times, took their regularly-scheduled Tuesday off, pored over film, installed a game plan and kept trying to fine-tune ways to slow down the likes of Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson.

But Pagano's stunning diagnosis has changed the whole perspective of this game.

Instead of billing it as a head-to-head matchup between what some viewed as virtual quarterbacking twins in, reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck, the focus has suddenly turned to the real-world challenges faced by Pagano and his players — even though the result is still likely to be dictated by the performances of Rodgers and Luck.

"He (Pagano) is such a personable guy. He's got an electric personality. Guys feed off that," former Colts and current Packers center Jeff Saturday said, recalling how Indy coped with the death of Tony Dungy's son in 2005. "It's a little bit different than what we went through with Tony, and I'm sure they're trying to unify behind this thing with Reggie (Wayne) and (Robert) Mathis and (Antoine) Bethea. They know how to handle adversity."

But in the sometimes cruel world of the NFL, the show must go on.

"Anytime you're dealing with a situation bigger than the game, bigger than football, it's always tough," Raji said. "I would think I'd want to go out and try to win the game for my coach. We can't worry about that. I wish them the best, but on that particular day, we're trying to win the game."

So are the Colts.

While team owner Jim Irsay wasted no time in explaining this week's mission — delivering the game ball to Pagano, something the Colts will only do if they can win — Arians must make sure the Colts remain focused on doing their job.

"I think more and more as the week progresses, more and more the emphasis is going to be try to win this game for Chuck. Chuck doesn't want that," Arians said. "He doesn't want to put that extra pressure on these guys. Just win the game because we want to win the game, and that'll be the extra icing on the cake to give him that birthday present."


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