Cornerback Patrick Peterson and his Cardinals' teammates look to win a fourth straight Sunday against the Colts.
The Arizona weather already has a January feel to it, and Sunday's atmosphere at University of Phoenix Stadium may have fans double-checking their calendars.
It's only Week 12 on the NFL schedule, but everything about the Cardinals' matchup against the Colts screams of playoff intensity.
We knew long ago this week would pit Bruce Arians against Indianapolis, the team he led to a 9-3 record and a playoff berth in 2012 as coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia. We knew it would be emotional for the first man to earn NFL Coach of the Year honors one year and face that team the next.
"I was hoping it would never be on the schedule," Arians said.
There are personal ties everywhere, as several former Colts coaches and players made the transition with
Arians to Arizona. The reunion ramps up the stakes, as do both teams' realistic shots at the postseason.
The Colts (7-3) lead the AFC South by three games, while the Cardinals (6-4) are one game back of the No. 5 seed Panthers and a tiebreaker behind No. 6 seed San Francisco for the two wild card spots. The Bears, Lions, Packers, Cowboys and Eagles all have either five or six victories, so one loss can send a team tumbling down the standings.
"We're studying like it's a playoff-type situation," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "You lose, you could go home. That's how it is right now."
The Colts have shown how good they can be with victories over the Seahawks and the Broncos. They've also been inconsistent lately, losing to the Rams by 30 on Nov. 10 and trailing by double digits at the half before rallying to beat the struggling Texans and Titans within the last three weeks.
Some have been surprised at the Cardinals' ascension, as they were forecasted in the preseason to be in the lower rungs of the NFL hierarchy. Despite a three-game winning streak, there are still doubters, and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said this game will be an important barometer.
"If we're really contenders and we feel as though we can be a playoff team, these are the kinds of games we have to win," he said. "We're at home. There are no excuses."
The Cardinals held Jacksonville to 32 rushing yards last week and now have the second-stingiest run defense in the league behind only the Jets. The Colts don't figure to run wild, so the key matchup may be how well the Cardinals fare against quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Cardinals are tied for third in the league in takeaways (22) and interceptions (14) but Luck has done a good job of protecting the football (six interceptions, two lost fumbles). Then there is the issue of containing him, not only through the air but on the ground. Luck has thrown for 2,430 yards and 14 touchdowns and has also added 231 rushing yards and four more scores.
"That's the part that everyone overlooks," Arians said. "When you go back to the combine, his numbers were the same as Cam Newton's. He ran as fast, jumped as high – was maybe about a half-inch shorter – so it's the same athlete as Cam Newton is, but you don't hear about him in that light. He will kill you with his legs, especially down in the red zone."
The Cardinals' recent mantra has been to treat each game like a single-elimination situation. They won't be out of contention with a loss, but it would make the road much tougher.
"There's a lot of good teams in front of us playing good ball right now," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "It's all about the team stacking chips."
The Cardinals are buoyed by the fact that they now control their own destiny, made possible after the 49ers lost to the Saints last week. If they win out, they're guaranteed a postseason berth.
"From this point on, it's up to us," Fitzgerald said. "We don't have to worry about anybody and what anybody else does in terms of wins and losses, things like that. If we continue to handle our business, we'll get ourselves a ticket."