Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett gives coach Bruce Arians a congratulatory fist bump following Sunday's 40-11 win over Indianapolis.
There were still a few hugs for Bruce Arians to deliver to former Colts cohorts Sunday, but the more important gesture came as the Cardinals head coach met defensive tackle Darnell Dockett as they walked off the University of Phoenix Stadium turf and shared a fist bump.
The emotion of his Indianapolis reunion was long past Arians by that point, rightfully replaced by his current team, its 40-11 thrashing of the Colts and their place in the NFL universe.
"Normally, I usually come in and talk about a statistic or two, but really the only one that matters is a 'W,' " Arians said. "From here on in, it doesn't matter about third-down statistics, red-zone statistics, rushing statistics, it's just winning damn games."
The Cardinals (7-4) are doing that now, reeling off a fourth straight with their domination of the Colts (7-4). Indianapolis is going to win the AFC South, barring a complete collapse, the first time the Cardinals during this streak knocked off a playoff-caliber team.
"I think this was a respect game," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "I don't think we are well respected throughout the league,
and that's not anybody's fault but our own. But I think we are better than people think."
It wasn't just the win but how the Cards did it too, scoring 40 points for the first time since a 43-13 win over Denver in December of 2010 and only the second time they have even reached 30 in that same 46-game span.
Figure in a Cards' résumé that include wins over Carolina and Detroit, and it's probable the Cardinals are going to start getting more attention very quickly.
"You know what's funny?" defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Whenever the Cardinals win it's always what the other team didn't do. It's never what we forced other teams to do. We understand that. Everyone says, 'They didn't beat nobody, they didn't beat nobody.' "
Sunday, it felt exactly like the Cardinals simply imposed their will.
That's nothing new with the defense. Save for a meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to tight end Coby Fleener – with the Cardinals ahead by 31 points – the Cards harassed Luck all night. He completed 20 of 39 passes for 163 yards, and his TD pass was offset by an interception by Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby that Dansby returned for a score.
"They created a bit of a hornet's nest," Luck said of the Cards' defensive pressure.
If the Cards' defense is the constant, however, the offense was the revelation. Palmer has called it a work-in-progress since OTAs, and while he won't come off such a description, the unit's efficiency has been significantly upgraded.
The run game was there, with 120 total yards and the best looking Rashard Mendenhall (54 yards on 13 carries) of the season. The passing game certainly was there, with Palmer completing 26 of 37 passes for 314 yards, two touchdowns to Larry Fitzgerald and yet again no interceptions. Michael Floyd quietly starred again with 104 yards on seven catches.
Arians may not want to point out statistics anymore, but he would no doubt be pleased with 27 first downs and a 7-for-14 tally on third-down conversions.
"It's hard to say we saw this coming, but we've been working toward this," Palmer said.
The Cards' first touchdown drive came on 10 plays and they didn't even face a third down. The second drive should've gotten points except for a blocked field goal. The third drive again ended with a touchdown with no third downs, and the fourth brought a field goal – followed up by the Dansby score.
There was still some lamenting of missed opportunities – three field-goal attempts came at the Indianapolis 10-yard line or closer – but the offensive improvement has put the Cardinals in an impressively balanced place as a team heading into the stretch run.
"You're not going to fear us," Arians said of his offense, "but you are going to respect us."
As far as Palmer is concerned, he'd rather not draw any more attention to the team, although that seems inevitable after Sunday. Arians knows this, and the warning has been sent.
"We've been talking about it for a while now," Arians said. "Just don't listen to the noise. The noise is going to get louder each week and you've got to tune the noise out. All that matters is what is going on in the locker room."
It's a locker room brought to life with camaraderie these days, Arians said, no surprise given the steady flow of wins. The NFC East-leading Eagles are next in a Thanksgiving weekend trip to Philadelphia, another chance for the Cardinals to attract more eyeballs.
That's what a chance for the playoffs can do, and what was driving the emotion of Arians and the Cardinals.
"We are in the hunt," said cornerback Jerraud Powers, a former Colt. "That's all you can ask for. It seems like everyone is believing in one another."