Colts will be motivated in Pagano's first game back

As good as Andrew Luck has been for the Indianapolis Colts, he might rank as the third-best rookie quarterback in the NFL this season. And he's the second-best story on his team.

The Colts, 2-14 a year ago, are 10-5 and headed for the playoffs, an unlikely turnaround led by Luck and inspired by a coach who missed 12 games.

Chuck Pagano, who fought off a form of leukemia, is returning to coach the Colts in their regular-season finale against the Houston Texans on Sunday. He's walking back into a far better situation than he could have imagined when he was forced to walk away in September.

Much of the success is due to Luck, who has performed to the expectations of a No. 1 draft pick, passing for 4,183 yards and 21 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. He also has rushed for 254 yards and five scores. His leadership presence is equally as impressive as his arm and legs.

Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, a holdover from the Peyton Manning-led teams, has done his part to help the rookie with 102 receptions for the league's seventh-ranked pass offense.

But numbers don't tell the tale for Indianapolis, which has been outscored by 42 points yet somehow stands five games over .500. Pagano's story is the team's inspiration, and, although the Colts are locked into the No. 5 seed for the AFC playoffs, they will be motivated to win on the day their coach makes his comeback.

Emotional intangibles aside, the Colts are playing well enough to ride them as 7-point home underdogs against the Texans, who have dropped two of their past three games, are 0-10 in Indianapolis and appear to be one loss from a free-fall.

Houston (12-3) needs the game more, with Manning and the Denver Broncos set to steal the top seed in the conference, but the Texans also needed to avoid getting dominated on their home field by Minnesota six days ago.

Luck is one of two rookie quarterbacks guaranteed to reach the playoffs, with Seattle's Russell Wilson the other. Robert Griffin III will try to become the third when Washington hosts Dallas in the prime-time finale.

The Colts are 6-1 at home, and Luck will look to welcome Pagano back home with a win. It would be a great story, and for 'dog bettors, a point-spread cover would be good enough.

Four more plays for Week 17 (Home team in CAPS):

■ STEELERS (-6) over Browns: There will be no postseason for Pittsburgh, but there is some incentive to finish 8-8. Ben Roethlisberger made it clear this week that a sub.-500 record is unacceptable. The quarterback said, "We want to finish strong. I want to finish strong. I'm going to go out there and give it my all." It might be an empty promise, but it also won't take much to beat Cleveland, which could be starting its third-string QB and is off a 22-point loss at Denver.

■ Eagles (+7½) over GIANTS: In his Philadelphia finale, Michael Vick wants to show something to teams in need of a quarterback for next season. The Giants have a slim shot to sneak into the playoffs, but it's unrealistic, and when they needed to win the past two weeks, they were blown out at Atlanta and Baltimore.

■ VIKINGS (+3½) over Packers: Adrian Peterson ran wild for 210 yards in Minnesota's 23-14 loss at Green Bay on Dec. 2, and he's 208 yards from eclipsing Eric Dickerson's season rushing record. More importantly, the Vikings are one win from being a playoff team. The Packers are playing for the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

■ REDSKINS (-3) over Cowboys: Griffin made a mockery of the Dallas defense on Thanksgiving. That won't happen this time. The best game of the day is saved for last, and I do believe Tony Romo and the Cowboys will show up. But in a huge rivalry game with everything on the line, the edge goes to the home team, and Dallas does not deserve to be a playoff team.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread

Season: 52-27-1

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts "The Las Vegas Sportsline" weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.