The Colts (7-3) wrap up their tour of the NFC West Sunday in Arizona with a visit to play Bruce Arians' Cardinals (6-4) at 4:05 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium. For the first time, the reigning NFL coach of the year faces his former team the next season.
"I was hoping it would never be on the schedule," said Arians, "because there are too many emotional ties to what happened last year to have to play them. I'm just glad we are playing here and not there. That would really be tough to walk into that stadium. But it will be fun to see those guys, especially those young kids on offense that we had a chance to work with last year. It's going to be a challenge defensively to stop them."
Arians won AP NFL coach of the year honors last season when he took over for an ailing Chuck Pagano and led the Colts to a 9-3 record while interim head coach. The nine victories matched the record for wins by an interim coach.
"Nothing seems too daunting for him," said Colts quarterback Andrew Luck when asked about his rookie season with Arians. "His personality, everything seems to come easy to him. I think he's a natural coach. He builds great relationships with the players. I'm sure it was harder than it looked to step in and do what he did, but he made it look easy."
"You can't put a price tag on it," said Pagano of his gratitude to Arians. "What he did for not only myself, but more importantly this organization - our players, our coaches, everything – and everybody had a hand in it, the players and the coaches and him leading the charge. Again, (I'm) very, very grateful obviously."
Arians' inspiring success with the Colts allowed the 61-year-old to land his first NFL head coaching job with the Cardinals in the twilight of his coaching career. Arians thought he might be retired in 2012 after he was fired by the Steelers. Instead, Pagano hired Arians as offensive coordinator. When Pagano left the team mid-season to battle leukemia, he asked Arians to take over.
The Colts also reunite with the longtime mastermind of their offense, Tom Moore, now the Cardinals Assistant Head Coach/Offense. Moore spent 13 of his 35 NFL seasons in Indianapolis, overseeing the dynamic offense led by Peyton Manning. In addition, four former Colts now play for the Cardinals (QB Drew Stanton, OT Bradley Sowell, CB Jerraud Powers and WR Teddy Williams).
Colts cornerback Greg Toler was drafted by the Cardinals in 2009 and played four seasons in Arizona. Toler will not face his former team Sunday. He sits out his 4th straight game with a groin injury.
The Colts-Cardinals connections also reach into the front offices. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson's younger brother Dru is the Cardinals director of college scouting.
The Colts have already defeated the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC West, but lost to the Rams. The Cardinals have won their last three games, picking up wins over the AFC South's Texans and Jaguars the past two Sundays. The Colts want to protect their three game lead in the AFC South. The Cardinals want to keep pace for an NFC playoff spot.
"We are in the playoffs right now," said Arians. "Every game is win or be done. We have to stay pace with everybody that we are tied with. We now got some help, so that we kind of control our own destiny in a way, but we have to win every week."
The matchup features a pair of quarterbacks taken number one overall in the NFL draft (Andrew Luck -2012, Carson Palmer- 2003). The Cards are trying to follow the Colts example a year ago, rebuild and still win. The team has added 20 veteran players, five draft picks and two rookie free agents – a total of 27 players who were not on the 53 man roster in 2012. The Colts would love to pressure Palmer. Colts rush linebacker Robert Mathis needs 3 sacks to pass Dwight Freeney for the Colts record of most sacks in a season (16) and career (107.5).
"I remember when he had (Dwight) Freeney over on the other side of him and Freeney was in his prime and Mathis was just kind of a young guy coming up," said Palmer. "He has been a phenomenal player for a long, long time and been kind of overlooked because of the guy on the other side of the ball from him. Now it's really his defense and his show and he's shining."
The Colts have won their last four games against the Cardinals, including their only other visit to University of Phoenix Stadium in 2009, also the last time these teams met. The Colts won that game, 31-10, in a game where Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes.
The Cardinals are favored by two points. But the Colts are great at winning the close ones. Under Chuck Pagano, the Colts are 14-2 in one possession games, best record in the NFL over the past two seasons in that category.
The Colts have run the ball with more success this season than in recent years. Donald Brown is coming off a season-high 80 yards and career-best two touchdowns rushing last game against the Titans. But the Cardinals defense ranks 2nd in the league stopping the run, allowing opponents just 81 yards a game and 3.39 yards per carry.
"Very salty defense," said Luck. "They play hard. They do a good of stuffing the run. They got a good front seven and a really talented secondary. They play hard too. You turn on the film, you see guys flying to the football, getting hands on the football. You see number 32 (Tyrann) Mathieu running down and causing a fumble at the one-yard line on a big play. We know it's going to be tough, tough sledding, but we're looking forward to it. It will be a great challenge."