INDIANAPOLIS –Sunday's Colts-Bengals game features quarterbacks who never have failed to make the playoffs.
Andrew Luck led the Colts there last year as a rookie. Andy Dalton has taken the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.
As they try to decipher defenses they face, they are sharing the same field for the first time.
"I knew him in high school, so I've kind of followed his career," said Dalton. "He's done a lot of really good things. He's doing a lot for that offense. He's a guy that I enjoy watching."
Dalton exited TCU a year before Luck emerged from Stanford. Dalton was on the 2011 draft screen for many teams and in trying to lead his 8-4 Bengals to a third straight post-season, he would become only the fifth starting quarterback to do that in opening a career.
His sights are set, however, on Robert Mathis (15.5 sacks) and a Colts defense coming off a four-takeaway performance last week.
"You definitely know what he's done this year," said Dalton. "You turn on the tape and can see pretty quickly what kind of guy he is. It shows by his sack numbers. You got to find where he is on the field, and you got to be able to move in the pocket because he is so good."
Dalton has an attack that sports solid backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard, two proficient tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, and A.J. Green, a receiver who is tied for the NFL lead with six touchdowns from 50-plus yards since the start of 2012.
Dalton came back from a slow second half last week and used the running of Green-Ellis and Bernard in getting a 17-10 win at San Diego.
The Bengals, 5-0 at home, will be trying for a seventh triumph in their last nine games in facing the Colts, and Mathis sees a quarterback who can move around to get the ball to his weapons.
"His athleticism kicks in. If he needs to make a play with his legs, he's capable of doing it," said Mathis. "He's smart and athletic. He definitely knows what he's doing. We have to stick to the script. You just have to do your job and trust the guy next to you."
Dalton was the first rookie quarterback to start as many as eight wins (nine) and throw for 20-plus touchdowns (20). Luck (11-5, 23 TDs) matched those last year.
Last week, Luck moved to 7,167 career passing yards, 100 yards more than Dalton accomplished from 2011-12, and the fourth-highest total accomplished by a player in his first two seasons.
While Luck nods at numbers and accomplishments, his focus is on the next game. This one affords a stout Cincinnati defense and a chance to nail down his first division title.
"It's going to be a great challenge. They're the leaders of the AFC North, a phenomenal football team," said Luck. "From our perspective as an offense, a tough, stingy defense. (It's) an aggressive defense, a lot of playmakers all over the field. It will be a lot of fun, and tough."
As Luck has a defensive strategist for a head coach, so does Dalton, and Luck will be contending against a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed (18.0), sixth in total defense, eighth against the rush and pass.
"They're ranked sixth for good reason, they got good players," said Pagano. "Got a good front seven, good linebacking corps, good in the back end. Mike Zimmer does a great job with them.
"They play fast, physical. They're big, long, athletic, well-coached. Marvin has done a great job there for a number of years. He's put himself together a really good squad."
Indianapolis ran for 78 of its 104 yards in a late scoring drive in beating Tennessee. The Colts had labored in the ground game in previous weeks chiefly because of first-half deficits due to slow starts offensively.
Luck endured a season-high five sacks last week and sees a Cincinnati defense with 36 sacks. It will do its best to keep an unblemished home record intact and with a playoff berth hanging in near grasp for both teams.
"Coach Pagano sort of spelled out where we are as a team. I think it's good to be aware of that," said Luck. "We're aware (of the implications a win or loss holds). We're going out to win a football game because it's a football game, first and foremost. That's our approach every week, and it's not going to change."
LUCK TO SEE ELEMENTS? – With the Sunday forecast possibly including snow, it would be the first such change to play in that condition for a quarterback who loves playing outdoors.
"I probably haven't played in snow since I was throwing a football around as a kid, so very excited about it," said Luck. "I love playing outside. I think there's something about it that's fun."