Six Points: Bengals vs. Cardinals
Carson Palmer admitted "it's not just another game" and that holds true from a personal and team perspective when he leads the Arizona Cardinals (7-2) into a Sunday night matchup against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals (8-1).
Palmer was traded to Oakland in 2011 following a bitter squabble with Bengals team management and eventually landed in Arizona, where he has resuscitated his career and guided the surging Cardinals to a three-game in the NFC West.
Some of the luster, at least from a hype perspective, was removed from the matchup when the Bengals were surprised at home by the Houston Texans on Monday night to end their perfect season. Cincinnati's top-ranked scoring defense will be pitted against a Palmer-led offense that is second in points.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Bengals and the Cardinals.
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1. Get Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert's confidence up early
Dalton is going to be feeling the pressure in his third straight prime-time game, especially after Monday night's stunning loss to Houston. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson would be wise to start off with some quick passes to set Dalton at ease. He should also make tight end Tyler Eifert a priority so he can quickly get over last week's three-drop nightmare.
2. Make Giovani Bernard the primary back
The Bengals' have stuck with Jeremy Hill in hopes of getting him back to his 2014 form, but he's done essentially nothing. It's time to sit Hill more in favor of Bernard, who has been averaging two-plus yards more per carry than his fellow back. Bernard's added threat in the passing game makes him a better matchup against Arizona's stiff run defense.
3. Win up front on defense
Palmer was under heavy pressure last week in Seattle, especially after left guard Mike Iupati's injury in the second quarter. Iupati has a chance to return from his concussion, but the trenches are where Cincinnati needs to win on defense. The Bengals have the right mixture of personnel in the front seven to stop the run, but they'll need to get to Palmer to help the secondary out against Larry Fitzgerald and company.
1. Get Andre Ellington more involved
Ellington closed out last week's win over Seattle with a 48-yard touchdown run, but his big-play ability is not the only reason to feature him more in the ground game. Backfield mate Chris Johnson went over 100 yards four times in a six-game span, but he managed only 58 yards on 25 carries against the Seahawks. Ellington has fresh legs and he did open the season as the team's starter.
2. Focus on blitz protection
The Cardinals were manhandling the Seahawks until a pair of huge turnovers changed the momentum of the game. On both occasions, Palmer fumbled when he was strip-sacked by Seattle blitzing linebackers, leading to two touchdowns in a pair of less than two minutes. The Bengals are likely to try a similar tactic, especially with both of Arizona's starting guards ailing.
3. Curb the emotions
Palmer embodies the personality of coach Bruce Arians and loves to keep attacking a defense. It's hard to argue with that strategy given the offensive numbers and the team's success, but along with the fumbles last week, Palmer also threw an interception in the end zone. An eagerness to send a message to Cincinnati can lead to similar mistakes.