TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -- Bruce Arians does not try to pretend this is just another game. Not after what he and the Indianapolis Colts went through last season.
As anyone who pays attention to the NFL knows, Arians took over as interim coach of the Colts when Chuck Pagano was stricken with leukemia. He famously left the light in Pagano's office on, never to be turned off until the coach returned.
Meanwhile, Arians guided Indianapolis to a 9-3 record, earning coach of the year honors in the process. Pagano returned and the Colts went on to the playoffs. It's a season that propelled Arians to the head coaching job in Arizona and on Sunday his Cardinals will face Pagano and the Colts.
''I was hoping it would never be on the schedule,'' Arians said, ''because there are too many emotional ties to what happened last year to have to play them. I'm just glad we are playing here and not there. That would really be tough to walk into that stadium.''
Had Pagano not become ill, Arians might very well never have gotten a chance to be an NFL head coach. Arians said he has reflected on that fact ''many, many days.''
''It's a shame that it took that to get an opportunity,'' he said. ''I'm just thankful he's healthy and beat it and continues to beat it. That was really the whole focus last year. It did present an opportunity, and I'm very thankful for it. But, I hate that it had to happen that way.''
For two decades Arians toiled as an offensive assistant, working his way up with stints in Kansas City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis again.
''How you get opportunities is one thing,'' Pagano said, ''but he's certainly taking advantage of it. I think everybody in the coaching profession knows that was long overdue.''
After helping the Steelers win two Super Bowls, Arians left Pittsburgh in what was officially called a retirement. Arians does not hide the fact he was ''shown the door. ''
Then his old friend Pagano called and asked him to come to work as offensive coordinator. Arians, who already had worked with a young Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, loved the idea of joining rookie Andrew Luck.
Arians could not have known that his professional and personal world would be jolted with the news that Pagano was leaving the team for treatment of leukemia.
Now, just past his 61st birthday, Arians has the Cardinals 6-4 and just a game out in the NFC wild card playoff chase. Age seems no barrier, either, in doing his job or communicating with young players.
''He's got an incredibly young soul,'' Luck said. ''I think people of all ages get along with him. He just has that knack with people.''
As the teams prepared for Sunday's game, Pagano seemed disinclined to revisit the oft-told story of last season.
''Obviously, there's history there,'' he said, ''(but) it's the Colts vs. the Cards and he'll go through his process just like we'll go through our process in preparation for Sunday's game.''
Both teams are having successful seasons. Indianapolis (7-3) has a three-game lead in the AFC South. Arizona has won three in a row to move within a game of a wild card spot in the NFC.
Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer knows this one means a bit more than the records show to the Cardinals coach.
''I think this entire locker room has a tremendous respect for him and wants to please him,'' Palmer said. ''We know that he's got some feelings toward Indianapolis.''
Not hard feelings. That's for sure. Arians cherishes his memories of Indianapolis and mentions them often.
He and Pagano still talk two or three times a week. Not this week, though.
They will get a chance to talk on the field, though.
''It will be more emotional pre-game,'' Arians said, ''seeing the guys for the first time, especially all the younger players who we coached last year, and all the guys. .... It was a very tight group. You don't accomplish what they accomplished last year without holding each other accountable and having a common cause. It was very special.''
On Sunday, there will be ''a lot of hugging and high-fiving,'' he said, ''and then just like playing your brother in your backyard, I'm kicking your (butt).''
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