Indianapolis Coach Chuck Pagano missed nearly the entire season while… (Sam Riche / McClatchy-Tribune )
The story of the 2012 Indianapolis Colts could go from awesome to awkward in a flash.
Chuck Pagano is back as coach after nearly three months of treatments for his leukemia, and there's scarcely a more inspiring sight in sports. His good friend, Bruce Arians, has dutifully stepped aside, having led the team on a wildly improbable march to the playoffs in Pagano's absence.
But what happens this off-season, when head-coaching vacancies crop up all over the league?
Arians, 60, has waited his entire career to be a head coach, and he's at an age where those opportunities are not plentiful. Rest assured, if and when teams come calling, he will listen -- especially those franchises with good quarterbacks (read: San Diego).
The Colts, meanwhile, will move ahead with Pagano, and we don't have a true read yet on what kind of head coach he will be. He was 1-2 when he was given his cancer diagnosis, and although he was a rallying figure throughout the last few months, he wasn't the one leading the Colts to a 9-3 record over their last dozen games.
For the sake of argument, what if the Colts were to go 7-9 in 2013 under Pagano, while Arians went on to lead Cleveland to the playoffs?
The question would be unavoidable: Did the Colts keep the right guy?
On top of being hypothetical, the question is academic, because there's no other way for the Colts to handle this than to keep Pagano, who deserves a chance, and to hope that Arians stays. But that's where the awkwardness comes in.
Without question, Arians has proved he's head-coaching material. There are no statistics that justify what the Colts have been able to do this season, not for a franchise that finished 2-14 in 2011 and has a rookie quarterback and running back, as well as key first-year players at receiver, tight end and elsewhere.
The Colts have somehow won despite being outscored by a combined 42 points; being minus-14 in turnover differential (tied for third-worst in the league), and having 13 players on injured reserve -- including starting cornerback Jerraud Powers, running back Donald Brown, defensive end Fili Moala, and third receiver Austin Collie.
It's not by accident that the Colts are 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A big part of that is coaching, and Arians deserves to be the NFL's coach of the year, the first interim coach to win the honor.
So is he guaranteed gone after the season? No. It's got to be the right situation for him to be lured away, especially with the incredible promise that Andrew Luck has shown and Arians' great relationships with Colts owner Jim Irsay, General Manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano.
However, it's entirely plausible that new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam would make a run at Arians if Cleveland were to make a coaching change, considering Haslam was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers when Arians played a crucial coaching role on the Steelers' three Super Bowl teams of the last seven years.
Arians would have to weigh what kind of promise he sees in Brandon Weeden.
That said, the idea of squaring off against Pittsburgh twice a year would have to be enticing to a coach still stung by the Steelers' decision to show him the door.
Philadelphia could give Arians a call, or maybe Tennessee, Jacksonville, Arizona or Carolina.
The bottom line is, there will be interest, and Arians will surely listen.
The Colts' Hollywood story doesn't have a Hollywood ending yet.
At the end of the season, we're going to look back at two defensive developments that had a huge impact on the way the playoffs will unfold.
First, the injury to San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith is devastating to the 49ers.
He hasn't practiced since suffering a partial tear to his left triceps in a Dec. 16 win over New England. The 49ers are hoping to get him back in the playoffs, but that's not the kind of injury that heals quickly.
Smith is a cornerstone of that defense and has played a huge role in the success of Aldon Smith (no relation), who has an NFC-best 191/2 sacks.
With Justin as the dominating physical presence, Aldon can loop around him, shoot into the backfield and get to the quarterback. Without Justin in the lineup, it's much easier for opponents to run at Aldon.
The other key defensive development is Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman's winning the appeal of his four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy.
The Seahawks will get cornerback Brandon Browner back from suspension for the playoffs. He's the more physical of the two. Sherman is the playmaker, and figures to be a huge help for a team that's peaking at the ideal time.
Odds and ends
The 49ers are favored by 161/2 points to beat Arizona on Sunday in a game that will probably decide the NFC West champion.
If the 49ers win -- or if Seattle loses to St. Louis -- San Francisco will win its second consecutive division crown and play host to a playoff game.