It's not often a team with double-digit wins makes a coaching change on the eve of the postseason. But that's just what the Indianapolis Colts will do Sunday when they host the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium to close out the 2012 regular-season schedule.
And they'll be awfully happy about it, because it means a welcome back for Chuck Pagano.
The Colts head coach makes his first sideline appearance since Week 3 as the follow-up to a successful battle with leukemia -- which comes as part of the franchise's own improbable encore to a 2-14 finish in a lost season under Jim Caldwell a year ago.
Pagano began September as Caldwell's successor but was felled just three weeks into the month when his diagnosis was formally announced and day-to-day leadership of the team was assumed by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
"I feel great," Pagano said. "My weight is back, my energy is back and, again, it's just a blessing to be back here."
Arians went 9-3 in 12 games after the 1-2 start and Indianapolis clinched a berth in the AFC tournament last week with a 20-13 defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts had officially fallen out of the South Division race a week prior, when the Texans beat them, 29-17, in Houston.
"He's always been our head coach," Arians said.
The defeat of Indy was Houston's lone win in its last three games, which also included a 42-14 loss at New England the week before the Colts game and a 23-6 home loss to Minnesota last Sunday.
Nonetheless, a second beating of Indianapolis can still clinch big things -- specifically home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. If the Texans lose the rematch, they can still guarantee all home games with losses by both Denver and the Patriots.
To defensive end J.J. Watt, who enters the game two sacks shy of an NFL record, losing is no option.
"We know what it takes," he said. "We're going to get focused, and then we're going to come out there and earn ourselves home-field advantage."
A more pressing concern may be the status of running back Arian Foster, who exited the loss to the Vikings with an irregular heartbeat after amassing just 15 yards on 10 carries.
Houston coach Gary Kubiak expects his horse to be ready.
"I appreciate all the concern and support," Foster said. "I am doing well. Saw a cardiologist (earlier this week) and everything is back to normal."
Defending the run could be a sore spot for the Colts after they allowed 352 ground yards to Kansas City on an eye-popping 8 yards per carry. Not to mention the daunting presence of Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had 11 catches and a TD two weeks ago and leads the conference with 1,457 yards.
But even with those assets, Houston misfired on 10-of-11 third-down attempts against the Vikings and has converted only 14-of-55 tries this month. The Indianapolis defense is 10th in the league in opposition third-down percentage (33.3) in December and stopped the Chiefs on eight of 10 tries.
"There's many, many issues going on," Kubiak said. "But there is one consistent issue and the consistent issue is third-and-long."
Though Colts rookie Andrew Luck eclipsed Cam Newton's record for first-year passers in the win over Kansas City, he was held to less than 50 percent accuracy for the fourth straight game. In game one against the Texans earlier this month, he threw for 186 yards and two scores and was sacked five times.
Veteran wideout Reggie Wayne caught just three balls for 14 yards against the Chiefs, leaving him nine away from equaling his career-high reception total (111) of 2010. As a unit, Indy hasn't surpassed 300 total yards in three games after going for 300 or more 10 times in the first dozen.
"As an offense," Luck said, "if we can control the ball and not give it over, we're going to have a chance."
The Colts hold a commanding 17-4 lead in the all-time series between the teams, but Houston has won three of the last four, including the 12-point victory at home two weeks ago. Texans coach Kubiak is 4-9 against Indianapolis, while the returning Pagano will face Houston for the first time.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The aforementioned Foster lit the Colts up for 165 yards on 27 carries -- a 6.1-yard average -- when they met two weeks ago, and it would behoove the Texans to employ that strategy again to make sure their star is fully healthy. In three pre-2012 games against Indianapolis, Foster ran for 491 yards and five TDs on 71 carries, gaining a cool 6.9 yards per attempt.
Though they've slumped statistically as of late, Luck and the Colts have still shown a knack for rising to emotional occasions and finding myriad ways to win games they'd appeared to have no business claiming. With Pagano returning to the fold this week, expect the same sort of intangible boost that's already been carrying them through a surprising 2012.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 21, Texans 17