Bruce Arians, reigning AP Coach of the Year, will face the team he navigated through thick and thin in 2012 on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, now in remission from the leukemia that forced him to vacate his role last season, will lead his team to the desert for a game with huge implications for both sides, as they’re knee-deep in playoff races.
The 6-4 Arizona Cardinals, who boast a 4-1 home record, ride a three-game win streak into the matchup, while the Colts are coming off a 30-27 comeback win versus the Tennessee Titans, carrying a 7-3 record.
The narratives are many, given last season’s drama surrounding the Colts’ march to the playoffs with Arians at the helm, but they’ll certainly be set aside when the teams begin to warm up. At least, that’s what quarterback Andrew Luck expects.
“I think once warm-up sort of gets going and the ball is snapped, it won’t be too hard for either side to take the emotions out of it and realize it’s a big game,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake.”
Keys for Cardinals offense:
1. Prolong Palmer’s progress
Carson Palmer looked reborn last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he passed for 419 yards and two touchdowns in the Cardinals’ 27-14 win. Of course, the caveat of the performance was that it came against the lowly Jaguars, who are 1-9 on the season.
Not only was the performance the second-best (yardage-wise) of Palmer’s career, but it was his first of the year without an interception. Also, it perpetuated his streak of not throwing multiple interceptions in a game to three, as the quarterback had thrown two or more interceptions in the Cardinals’ previous five games.
Palmer has completed more than 70 percent of his passes in two of the Cardinals’ previous three games and he has two touchdowns in each of those performances.
Riding this momentum into Sunday’s showdown with the Colts, and maintaining it, could, perhaps, be the biggest factor of the game, given the Cardinals’ rushing challenges.
2. Contain Robert Mathis
The woeful Cardinals offensive line has yet another tough pass rushing assignment, and he comes to University of Phoenix Stadium as the NFL’s leading sacker. The Colts’ Robert Mathis has 13.5 sacks through his team’s first 10 games of the season.
And, to add to the numerous Colts-Cardinals storylines that surround this game, the man mostly assigned to stopping Mathis, second-year pro Bradley Sowell, was himself a Colt last season.
He’s not the perfect size, perfect speed or anything like that, but he’s relentless,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “We can’t have two people on him all the time because he moves around.”
As usual, protecting Palmer’s blindside is a major point of emphasis for the Cardinals on Sunday, and that’s much easier said than done for Sowell when it comes to Mathis. Fortunately, for him, the Cardinals’ line seems to be jelling of late, but the task is both outstanding and weighty.
3. Big plays and scores must come early
Outside of their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cardinals’ offense cannot be trusted to come from behind in games. They lack the big play potential to make up deficits, so early leads and establishment are incumbent on them if the team is to win.
The defense, on the other hand — the juggernaut that it is — has shown that it can hold most any lead, so long as they’re given one. Giving them something to defend, other than pride, would be the key for the other unit.
Big plays could allow the Cardinals to establish something offensively. Finding explosive players like Andre Ellington, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, then, has to be the approach for Arians and his offense.
Noteworthy Stat: Carson Palmer is 0-3 in his career against the Colts, throwing for 803 yards along with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Keys for the Colts offense:
1. Fling it to Fleener
Second-year tight end Coby Fleener is coming off a career performance in which he caught 10 passes for 107 yards in a win over the Titans.
Stopping tight ends just so happen to be the Achilles heel of the Cardinals’ defense, so Andrew Luck would be wise to look at his former college teammate as much as possible.
In 10 games, Arizona has surrendered 10 touchdowns to seven different tight ends.
2. Take care of the ball
That’s an obvious point, sure, but in their three losses the Colts have turned the ball over seven times, including five times in a 38-8 blowout defeat against the St. Louis Rams.
While Luck has certainly limited his picks in season number two, he must keep in mind that his former offensive coordinator will be standing on the opposing sideline Sunday.
If that’s not enough to scare the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, knowing that Arizona is tied for fourth in the league with 22 takeaways should serve as reason enough to stress ball security in Glendale.
3. What can Brown do for you?
If you’re the Colts, a whole heck of a lot. Despite trading a 2014 first-round pick to acquire Trent Richardson, the former No. 3 overall selection has not quite earned his keep in Indy.
Donald Brown, the team’s first-round pick back in 2009, however, has been dependable out of the backfield lately. In the Colts’ come-from-behind win in Nashville last Thursday, he ran for 80 yards and two scores.
With Richardson primarily a threat in the passing game now, Pep Hamilton shouldn’t be afraid to let Brown carry the load on the ground.
Arizona has been stout against the run, allowing the second-fewest yards (814) in football, however if Indianapolis becomes too one-dimensional, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington, John Abraham and Karlos Dansby will pin their ears back and feast of off Luck.
Brown can neutralize the pass rush if he can provide some semblance of a threat in the run game.
Noteworthy Stat: In three games against the NFC West, Andrew Luck has completed 60.78 percent of his passes — his highest percentage against any division.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Sustain second-half success:
In Arizona’s six wins this season, its defense has allowed 21 total points in the second half.
Indianapolis could easily be 5-5 heading into Sunday’s game, if not for two impressive second-half comebacks at Houston and Tennessee. If Todd Bowles’ unit can keep the game close for the first 30 minutes of play, recent history suggests they’ll be just fine over the last 30 minutes of play.
2. Keep Luck contained:
Andrew Luck might not look the part, but he arguably is the best duel-threat quarterback in the NFL right now. Luck, who has thrown for 2,430 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, has tremendous mobility out of the pocket and isn’t afraid to show it off when facing a blitz or incoming pressure.
In 2013, Luck has already amassed over 230 rushing yards and has recorded six runs of 11 yards or greater. Most of his damage comes through the air, but his feet are major assets when it comes to keeping plays and big drives alive.
3. Hide Hilton:
Patrick Peterson has faced some of the elite receivers in the league already this season, including the likes of Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson and Steve Smith.
Second-year wideout T.Y. Hilton is certainly not in that class yet, but he has become Luck’s go-to guy given the absence of Reggie Wayne. Since Wayne suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 20, Hilton has caught 19 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns.
If Peterson does his job on Hilton, Luck will likely struggle to generate much of a passing attack against the Cardinals. That’s how valuable No. 13 has become in Indy.
Noteworthy stat: Andrew Luck will be the fourth second-year quarterback — Case Keenum, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson — to face the Cardinals’ defense in 2013.
Keys for the Colts defense:
1. Take over for Toler:
Former Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler will not get the chance to take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday, as he’s been ruled out with a groin injury.
In his place, Cassius Vaughn will get the starting nod for the fourth straight week — a span that has seen the Colts give up big yardage to the likes of Tavon Austin and Andre Johnson.
Vaughn’s assignment this week won’t be any easier, as he’ll match up against Floyd, who is coming over a career-day of 193 yards and a touchdown. The fourth-year pro out of Ole Miss better be ready, because the Cardinals’ offense will likely test him through the air early and often.
2. Put Palmer on his back:
In Week 11, the Jacksonville Jaguars made it a point to stop the Cardinals’ run game. That plan worked from the standpoint that Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington and Palmer combined for 14 yards on 20 carries.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars didn’t emphasize rushing the quarterback, and Palmer had a field day, completing his first turnover-free game of the season en route to a 27-14 victory.
Palmer has thrown more interceptions (15) than interceptions (14) in 2013, but if he’s given time in the pocket, he’s a willing and able passer.
Mathis, who has more than half of Indianapolis’ sacks, needs to win his matchup against Sowell. However, he could also use some help from Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer and Cory Redding.
3. Start fast:
In their last three games, the Colts have given up 35 first quarter points, including four long touchdowns for 30 yards or more.
Emotions will be running high given the Arians-Pagano reunion, but when the game gets underway just past 2:00 p.m. MST, Greg Manusky’s unit needs to settle in. The offense has bailed them out in two of the last three weeks, but with that said, Indianapolis hasn’t gone up against defense as stingy as Arizona’s, especially in the second half.
Simply put, force an early turnover or create a big sack/loss in the backfield and good things will likely follow.
Noteworthy Stat: In 14 career appearances against the Cardinals’ franchise, the Colts have allowed just under 17 points per game.
Arizona Sports 620’s Dave Dulberg and Jules Tompkins contributed to this article