INDIANAPOLIS –When the Colts left Nashville last Thursday after a 30-27 victory, they owned a three-game divisional lead over Tennessee.
It was a game crucial to the club, much like its previous win – a 27-24 triumph at Houston on November 3.
Those wins came over the two-time division champions and the team nearest the Colts in this year's chase, and it sets the Colts up nicely as the regular season has dwindled to six games.
At 7-3, the Colts are tied with New England for the AFC's third-best record. Denver and Kansas City share the top mark at 9-1, while AFC North leader Cincinnati is 7-4.
The Colts visit Kansas City and Cincinnati in December, along with hosting each divisional foe. Indianapolis firmly is in control of its post-season fate.
Sunday brings the last cross-conference opponent, Arizona, and the Colts are aiming to up their 2-1 mark against the NFC West in their first visit to the Cardinals since 2009.
Indianapolis has helped the Cardinals to this point with a 34-28 victory over division leader Seattle (10-1) and a 27-7 victory at San Francisco (6-4).
Arizona and San Francisco are vying in a crowded Wild Card field that includes a host of teams with six wins (Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago).
Carolina's 7-3 record is a game off the NFC South lead of New Orleans (8-3). Dallas and Green Bay have five victories.
The Cardinals have won three straight games to become active in the playoff hunt. They triumphed last Sunday at Jacksonville, 27-14, the third straight game Arizona has amassed that point total.
The Cardinals' offense had 419 passing yards from Carson Palmer, including a 91-yard touchdown strike to Michael Floyd, the franchise's longest scrimmage play since relocating to Arizona in 1988.
Palmer has directed Arizona to 20-plus points in eight games, while the defense ranks eighth in points per game (21.2) and second against the rush (81.4). The defense is among things catching Chuck Pagano's eye.
"I think they're ninth right now overall, number two against the run. They got a bunch of takeaways," said Pagano. "You look at their front seven, they're loaded across the board – big, fast, strong, physical."
Pagano lauded the Arizona secondary as a whole, citing cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Yeremiah Bell, plus he respects the speed of the linebacking corps, "They do a great job."
Said Pagano, "I think our guys are excited to play the Cardinals. It's the next game. It's going to be a tough one. (They've) got a really good football team, solid in all three phases and well-coached. It will be a great challenge for our team."
Pagano saw his Colts overcome two 14-point deficits at Tennessee last Thursday in a 30-27 victory. He kidded on Friday that talk of slow starts that the Colts have incurred in three victories (Seattle, Houston, Tennessee) would be consigned to "off limits," much like the word 'rebuild' was when he took his job in 2012.
"I just think it could be one of those deals, the more you talk about it…" said Pagano on Monday. "I don't know if it's like a batter that's in a slump, the harder you press, the harder you swing, things might tend to get worse instead of just sticking to the process, executing better, better fundamentals, technique, communication.
"There's some things we can pinpoint in the last three games in the first half that you can put your finger on and say, 'If we get these things corrected…"
One area in which the club has labored has been first-half, third-down conversions. In being out-scored 66-9 in the first halves of the last three outings, the Colts have converted three-of-20, while opponents are 13-of-21.
"I told the guys this morning, if you total up just third down, if you look at third-down offense and third down-defense, (the) last three games, we've converted 13 percent," said Pagano. "Our opponents have converted 62 percent.
"That's something right there that we can focus on on both sides of the ball and try to fix."
Over 60 minutes last Thursday, Indianapolis had four drives exceeding 10 plays, an area in which the club flourished earlier this season. Each of those drives had at least four first downs earned, execution that led the Colts to six-of-13 third-down conversions for the game, as well as 32:23 possession time and 137 rushing yards.
Andrew Luck knows full-game execution is a must as the Colts strive to win a divisional crown and remain among the top AFC teams.
"We don't want to make it a bigger deal than it is," said Luck of the slow starts. "We also realize it can't happen continually. It'll work out."
PERSONNEL UPDATE –Pagano said defensive backs Josh Gordy, Greg Toler and Delano Howell practiced Monday. The trio has been out recently, and Sunday at Arizona could mean a return to the field.
The NFL has issued a one-game suspension to Erik Walden for a personal foul at Tennessee. The club said late Monday Walden will appeal the ruling.