NFL Preview - Indianapolis (7-3) at Arizona (6-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Call it winning ugly. Call it winning lucky.
Just as long, as far as Indianapolis wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is concerned, as you call it winning.
"'We're not executing in the first half and it's causing us the slow starts," Hilton said, as the team prepared for a Week 12 visit to the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. "But it is what it is and we're winning, so it's nothing more to talk about."
The Colts have won three of their last four games since a Week 6 loss at San Diego, though they've certainly not made it easy on themselves along the way. Indianapolis was down 18 points halfway through a Week 9 game at Houston before rallying for a three-point win, then fell behind by 14 at halftime before escaping with a 30-27 triumph at Tennessee last weekend.
Quarterback Andrew Luck threw three interceptions in the lone loss of the four-game stretch against St. Louis in Week 10, then successfully stayed clear of the stat sheet in the defeat of the Titans. In that game, running back Donald Brown carried the load with a pair of second-half touchdowns as part of a 14-carry, 80-yard performance.
Brown's numbers were part of a 137-yard overall effort on the ground, though only 22 of those yards came courtesy of Trent Richardson, the much-publicized trade acquisition from Cleveland in mid-September. Richardson has averaged 2.8 yards per carry and 45.3 yards per game in the six that he's played for the Colts, though coach Chuck Pagano remains a fan.
The former Alabama star has caught 10 passes for 96 yards in the last three games.
Former University of Florida star Chris Rainey was signed this week as a depth back. He gained 102 yards on 26 carries and had 14 catches for 60 yards last season with Pittsburgh.
"You look at Trent's runs, for whatever reason, there's penetration," Pagano said. "He had some really good runs, plays that he made in space, screens, things like that he does a great job with.
"Just, for whatever reason, we miss a block here or there and a guy is sitting there free in the hole. We'll get it fixed. We'll get the holes there."
When most Colts look across the field on Sunday, they'll see a familiar face.
Former Indianapolis assistant and interim head coach Bruce Arians is in his first year atop the Cardinals after filling in for the Colts last season while Pagano was being treated for leukemia.
Arians was 9-3 in Pagano's absence and helped Indianapolis to the playoffs one year after it had gone 2-14 while Peyton Manning stood injured on the sidelines. He became the first interim coach to be named the league's coach of the year, and parlayed the success into a four-year deal with the Cardinals in January.
This week in the desert, he's hoping to lead Arizona to its fourth straight win after a 3-4 start.
"The (game) prep will be easy," Arians said. "It's seeing them that will be emotionally involved because it was such an emotional year last year. You'll get through that hopefully in warmups. I was hoping this would never be on the schedule. Because there are too many emotional ties to what happened last year."
Pagano, whose Colts appear headed to the playoffs again with a three-game lead in the AFC's South Division, hasn't forgotten what Arians provided in Indianapolis and he's not surprised at his former underling's success in Arizona.
"You can't put a price tag on it," he said. "If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times, again what he did not only for myself but for this organization, our players, coaches. Him leading the charge. Just look what he did a year ago, so why would anybody be surprised. We all know that he's a damn good football coach.
"Our guys are excited to play the Cardinals. It's going to be a tough one. He's got a really good football team, solid in all three phases and well- coached. It will be a great challenge."
Arizona's rise has been largely due to a suffocating defense, which has held foes to 81.4 rushing yards per game (second in the league) and 324.9 total yards per game (ninth in the league). In the last three games - wins over Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville - the Cardinals have allowed 45 rushing yards per game and 267 overall.
Meanwhile, Arians, a former offensive coordinator, seems to be getting the most out of veteran Carson Palmer at the quarterback position.
The 10th-year man from Southern California completed 30 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns in a road win last weekend at Jacksonville. He's completed 68.5 percent of his throws in the last three games after barely exceeding 60 percent in his first seven, while throwing eight TDs to 13 interceptions.
In the last three, it's been six TDs and two interceptions.
"The things that have been biting him have been just one or two poor decisions during the ball game, or getting hit as he's throwing," Arians said. "We were able to eliminate those."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Keeping it tight.
The Colts have one of the league's top young tight ends in Coby Fleener (37 catches, three touchdowns), who's coming off a career-best 107-yard effort last week. Arizona struggled to cover capable tight ends under the best circumstances, and it gave up a 63-yard scoring pass to a Jaguars tight end last week.
Resistible force meets moveable object.
The Cardinals have been no one's ground and pounders this season, as an anemic 14 yards rushing against the Jaguars last week attests. But the Colts have been no one's 1985 Bears when it comes to stopping the run either, which provides hope for varying Palmer's options.
Arizona is a great story with Arians and it has certainly turned some heads with the three-game win streak, but it's necessary to point out that the combined record of the three victims at game time was 5-18.
Indianapolis represents a genuine step up in quality and warrants an edge here until the Cardinals can demonstrate otherwise.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Colts 24, Cardinals 21
11/21 12:24:28 ET