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Arizona Cardinals take center stage in wild-card race

Too early to take these Cardinals seriously?

Not at all.

Winners of four straight, Arizona sits firmly entrenched in the NFC playoff picture after Sunday's 40-11 scattering of the Indianapolis Colts.

Four convincing quarters of havoc revealed a Cardinals squad jelling on both sides of the ball. Arizona's defense is top-five material, and the team's long-assumed weakness -- quarterback Carson Palmer -- is playing his best football in half a decade.

Initially an afterthought in the NFC West behind the much-ballyhooed Seahawks and 49ers, the Cardinals now sit half a game atop San Francisco (6-4) for the conference's final wild-card spot.

The "most fascinating team in the league" has flown under the radar for months, but not after Sunday.

Here's what else we learned:

  1. The Colts have been outscored 93-9 in the first half over their past four games, and they trailed Arizona 27-3 at the midway point. Chalk that up to a Pep Hamilton-led offense that aims to pound teams on the ground, but lacks the horses to pull it off. Trent Richardson remains an enigma, totaling 15 yards off seven totes for a measly 2.1 yards per carry. Last week's star, Donald Brown, was an apparition.
  1. The Cardinals had issues of their own running the ball seven days ago, with Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington squeezing out just 17 yards against the Jaguars. The duo returned to form against Indy, with Arizona pounding away for 103 yards by halftime. It's hard to imagine Mendenhall as part of the plan next season, but he ran with purpose Sunday against a Colts defense that's given up 100-plus yards in nine of 11 tilts and more than 140 yards five times in 2013.
  1. It gets uglier: Indy was outgained 274-58 in the first half alone, as Andrew Luck struggled to move the ball with Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen out of the mix. Indy desperately needs Coby Fleener to step up. We saw that old Stanford chemistry between Luck and his tight end against the Titans in Week 11, but most of Fleener's 55 yards on Sunday came in garbage time.
  1. The Cardinals entered tied for fourth in the league in takeaways (22) and added to that with Karlos Dansby's pick six of Luck that all but ended the game in the second quarter. Patrick Peterson smothered receivers, and the "risky" prospect every front office in the NFL passed on for two rounds last spring -- Tyrann Mathieu -- has emerged as a weekly X factor.
  1. Bruce Arians deserves to be in the conversation for repeat NFL Coach of the Year honors. Meanwhile, Michael Floyd rolled out a second straight 100-yard performance, and Palmer -- in nosedive formation a month ago -- was productive for a fourth straight game:
  1. Up-and-down Indy will win a weak AFC South, but then what? Even in a mediocre conference up for grabs, these Colts look lost at sea.

We previewed every Week 12 game in the latest "Around the League Podcast."

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