By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
8:39 PM EST, December 30, 2012
When the Indianapolis Colts traveled to Baltimore for the Ravens' playoff opener in January 2007, fans greeted the city's former team with a vengeful intensity rarely seen in these parts.
Six years later, the Colts are coming back to town for another playoff contest. But it remains to be seen whether old hatreds will bubble up as violently as they did the last time.
These aren't the same Colts. The previous version was an NFL superpower led by Peyton Manning, who seemed intent on claiming the "greatest quarterback" mantle once shouldered by another horseshoe-wearing quarterback named Unitas.
But this is an upstart bunch, bouncing back from a disastrous 2-14 season on the arm of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. And the man in charge is Chuck Pagano, a beloved former defensive coordinator of the Ravens' who has waged a moving personal battle against leukemia this season.
"The whole Chuck side of it is a great story," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after his team's 23-17 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, its fourth defeat in the past five games. "He's a great friend, and I have tremendous respect for him personally and I love his family. Obviously, all of us got real close here."
Pagano's story could bring a poignant tone to a rivalry that usually evokes the bitter past — images of Mayflower trucks absconding with Baltimore's team on a snowy morning in 1984, the name Irsay forever a curse from Hereford to Highlandtown.
It was a feud made all the worse by Manning's general mastery of the Ravens and by that awful 2007 game in which a 13-win Baltimore team kept the Colts out of the end zone but lost a contest decided entirely by field goals.
But the Ravens, and by extension Baltimore, loved Pagano, who coached the defense last season before taking the head job in Indianapolis. Like many of his best players, he combined colorful expression with obsessive preparation.
"He's like a dad to me," free safety Ed Reed said of Pagano, his former position coach with the Ravens and at the University of Miami. "That's family, which is first before football."
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has exchanged text messages with Pagano throughout the year, said: "I don't think it's going to be any different, because we're going to play the way we want to play and try to win. But just seeing him there would be different, emotionally. Just to see him fight through the cancer and be out there on the sideline would be an amazing sight."
Pagano returned to work on a snowy morning last week after spending the better part of three months away from the game, enduring rounds of chemotherapy. A nation of football fans got a glimpse of his will earlier this season, when a drawn and largely bald Pagano left the hospital to deliver an inspirational speech to his team before a tough victory over the Miami Dolphins.
On Sunday, Pagano coached his first game since September, guiding the Colts to a 28-16 win over the AFC South champion Houston Texans. Asked afterward about returning to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, he praised his former team.
"You know, going back to Baltimore, obviously, there's some familiarity there. We had four great years there as a family," Pagano said. "Top-notch organization, really good football club. It'll be a great challenge, they've got a great team, and they've got great players all over the place."
Harbaugh paid Pagano and the Colts similar respect, but also made it clear the Ravens' focus won't waver.
"What he's been through and the whole thing is just phenomenal," Harbaugh said of Pagano. "But that gets set aside. We're all competitors, and they're coming into our place with every intention of winning the football game. We're going to have to play our best football to beat them."
Pagano's Colts are not a particularly formidable team on paper. They have won by more than a touchdown only twice all season, and when they've played strong opponents on the road — the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and Texans — they've been blown out.
The Colts made a bold move in the offseason, letting Manning, the face of the franchise for 14 years, walk away in favor of drafting Luck, who many believe could be the league's next great quarterback.
The rookie from Stanford has largely lived up to his promise as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, showing particular poise during late-game rallies. But Luck is interception-prone, and his accuracy has been poor in recent weeks.
The story on the Colts' defense isn't so mixed; the unit is downright lousy, especially against the run.
Fans watching the Ravens game in Baltimore on Sunday expressed a mix of hopes for the postseason, among them that star linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs would return to the field and that Luck would cave under playoff pressure.
"We'll take the Colts at home with No. 52 [Lewis] on the field," said Tim Junot, 30, who was at Looney's Pub in Canton with a large, purple-clad group for friend Kristen Kirchoff's 30th birthday. "He knows how to orchestrate a defense to rattle a rookie QB."
Kirchoff was also confident. "Of course I'm going to say we're going to go to the Super Bowl," she said.
Another friend, Marsha Legg, said she gladly accepted Sunday's loss for a Colts matchup next week. "We didn't care about the loss today. I was hoping for the Colts," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector, Aaron Wilson and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
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