Why the Cardinals’ playoff hopes could be determined by Carson Palmer this weekend
The Arizona Cardinals looked good Monday night.
They looked good the week before that too.
It helps to play the Jets and 49ers, respectively, but nonetheless there were positives to be drawn from the victories, which took the team to 3-3:
The Cardinals wide receivers were getting separation, the offensive line showed cohesion, the defense started to perform like the top-flight unit we thought they could be in the preseason.
And David Johnson — what additional adjectives could you possibly apply to the NFL’s best running back?
Even against two poor teams, it looked as if the Cardinals were figuring things out — they were turning around their season.
There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one:
Carson Palmer didn’t join the rest of the team on their redemption tour.
Palmer didn’t play in the team’s win over the 49ers because of injury, and against the Jets, he wasn’t at all impressive, averaging only 6.27 yards per pass attempt.
Palmer, at 36 years old, appears to be in the midst of a massive regression season, and unless the Cardinals want to make the bold move and play Drew Stanton for the rest of the season, that downturn could totally undermine a campaign that carried so much promise not so long ago.
Stanton, we can all agree, isn’t a quarterback capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl — but Palmer, who in 12 seasons has only one playoff win (which came last year), might no longer be a quarterback of that perceived caliber either.
Sunday’s game against the Seahawks will be a critical test of Palmer (if he plays — he’s listed as questionable with a hamstring injury but is generally expected to play, barring an unforeseen setback).
The Seahawks’ defense is firing — yes, there are concerns about Richard Sherman, who is being tasked with a lot in the shifted defensive scheme, but on the whole, the unit appears to be at an elite level again in 2016.
This is the kind of defense that the Cardinals’ offense will have to beat if they’re going to be competing for a championship this year.
Meanwhile, Palmer’s regression is coming in the place that’s most expected from a quarterback of his… experience.
The 2002 Heisman Trophy winner was the least accurate quarterback in the NFL last week and his deep-ball completion percentage is at 33 percent on the season. The Cardinals attempted only one deep pass — a mainstay in the Cardinals’ offense with Palmer at the helm — against the Jets on Monday. Was it a one-time scheme adjustment or a new reality? If it’s the latter, that doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals on Sunday.
Seattle is one of the NFL’s best in limiting the new bread-and-butter of NFL offenses — the short-to-intermediate pass. The way you beat the Seahawks — and most good defenses in the NFL — is with the deep ball. The Atlanta Falcons, while they didn’t win last Sunday, did hit Seattle with seven passes of 20 yards or longer. Furthermore, because of the threat of the deep pass (and then further augmenting it), nearly 25 percent of Matt Ryan’s passes came off play-action (per ProFootballFocus).
If Arizona cannot exploit Seattle’s biggest defensive weakness, it’s going to be hard to win — there aren't many other spots to exploit. And if they can’t beat the Seahawks, it’s hard to make the argument that the Cardinals should make the playoffs — they'll still have four games against teams currently in first place in their divisions on their schedule.
This is a game the Cardinals need to play at their best.
The rest of the team looks ready to contend — can Palmer get them where they want to go? We might just find out Sunday.