By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
It's been a season filled with reunions for the Indianapolis Colts.
From Andrew Luck's meeting with one of his college head coaches, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 to former quarterback Peyton Manning's epic homecoming with the Denver Broncos in Week 7, this team has learned to ride the emotional roller coaster.
So today's visit with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals is little more than business as usual.
"Honestly, I don't think guys get too caught up (in the storylines)," second-year quarterback Andrew Luck said. "I know I haven't. The emotions of seeing someone comeback or going somewhere or going up against a buddy or an old coach, I think football is an emotional game as it is. I know I haven't had a problem — I don't think guys in this locker room have — putting aside those emotions.
"We realize every game is a big game. You focus on that. You focus on the opposition, not the side stories. We leave that for you guys (in the media) and the fans."
Indeed, Luck has his hands full enough preparing for a Cardinals defense that is eighth in the league in scoring and ninth in total yards.
Arizona has surrendered less than 300 total yards in each of the past three games, and the NFL's second-ranked rushing defense gave up just 32 yards on the ground last week at Jacksonville.
It's the kind of all-around challenge that has Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano contemplating whether this might be the best defense his team has faced all season.
"You could argue that," he said. "They're really good, front to back, got playmakers at all three levels. The front is outstanding. The linebackers are very, very active, athletic and fast, make a lot of plays. The secondary is really good. You could argue that."
That secondary is led by cornerback Patrick Peterson — one of the game's most feared defensive playmakers, who has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries this season — and rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu.
There were questions about whether the former LSU star known as "The Honey Badger" could translate his high-risk, big-play style to the professional level. So far, the 21-year-old has remained clean off the field and produced two interceptions and one forced fumble on it.
In all, Arizona has eight defenders with at least two takeaways this season — including linebacker Karlos Dansby (one interception, one fumble recovery), safety Yeremiah Bell (two interceptions), defensive end Calais Campbell (two fumble recoveries), linebacker Daryl Washington (two interceptions, one fumble recovery), safety Rashad Johnson (two interceptions) and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy (three fumble recoveries).
And none of those players is currently the hottest star on the defense. That honor goes to linebacker John Abraham, a free-agent addition who has seven sacks and three forced fumbles in the past four games.
The Colts can take some solace in the fact that Abraham is questionable today with a hamstring injury, but there's no question about the challenge the Cardinals present.
"Very salty defense," Luck said. "They play hard. They do a good job 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."
It's a particularly stern test for an Indianapolis offense that has struggled to find its way in recent weeks. The Colts have been outscored 66-9 in the first halves of their last three games before finding a way to rally and win two.
At 7-3, Indianapolis enters the week as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of a better conference record than the 7-3 New England Patriots. Arizona (6-4) is part of a three-team tie for the sixth and final playoff seed in the NFC, hoping to keep pace with division rival San Francisco and the Chicago Bears.
In addition, the Colts can clinch their first AFC South title since 2010 with wins against the Cardinals today and the Tennessee Titans next week.
The whole scenario lends a playoff feel to today's contest, something that's not unusual for November and December games in the NFL.
"This is the time where you can position yourself and look real nice going into January or you can stink it up and be at home saying, 'I shoulda, coulda, woulda,'" defensive end Cory Redding said. "We don't want that. We worked too doggone hard the last two years to build what we built, to be where we're at now. Me, myself, personally, my teammates, Chuck, this organization, we're not just going to stand by and watch everything we worked so hard for go down in flames. We're going to go out fighting."