The Arizona Cardinals are 3-0 for the first time since the 2015 NFL season, the last time they made the playoffs when Carson Palmer was still their quarterback. The Los Angeles Rams are 3-0 for the second time in the last three years, beating three 2020 playoff teams in the process to establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders.
Put both teams together and that sets the stage for a brutal NFC West divisional clash. The Cardinals come in the feisty underdog, overachieving through an Air Raid attack led by second-year quarterback Kyler Murray. Arizona's 34.3 points per game are tied for the NFL lead with Tampa Bay and Tom Brady, while its scoring margin (+38) ranks second in the NFC behind the Carolina Panthers.
The Rams come close to matching those numbers, putting up 31.7 points per game while new quarterback Matthew Stafford has met lofty expectations. His 129.8 quarterback rating, second in the NFL to the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, would be a career-best for a veteran Kingsbury described as a "freak show" at the position.
Will Kingsbury's team be up to the task in a rivalry that hasn't swung their way as of late? Or will Stafford continue a tradition of Rams dominance against a team that's used to being the doormat of the NFC West?
The Cardinals have lost eight straight against the Rams, seven of them by 10 points or more. Playing in the NFL's toughest division, changing that will go a long way to ensuring this year's potential playoff return.
Arizona (3-0) at Los Angeles (3-0)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 3 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -4
Three Things To Watch
1. Murray vs. Stafford
These two are the reason their respective teams are sitting atop the NFC. Murray ranks third in the NFL in yards per attempt (9.9) and has already thrown for over 1,000 yards, tacking on a team-leading three rushing touchdowns on the ground. His 76.5 percent completion rate really stands out, providing an extra layer of accuracy other rushing-based quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson haven't quite mastered.
Stafford may not have the rushing ability of Murray but is with him step-for-step in almost every other category. His 10.0 yards per attempt is second in the NFL, while his nine touchdown passes are one behind Brady for the league lead. Of course, Stafford has a heads-up victory against Brady already, going turnover-free in a 34-24 thrashing that wasn't as close as the box score would make it appear.
Turnovers are one part of the game where Murray still shows his inexperience, and it should make the difference here. Only two winless teams, the Jaguars and Jets, have more interceptions than Murray's four to start the year. Consider that those have come against teams that are a combined 3-6 through three games.
Stafford, meanwhile, has been picked only once while the Rams offense has just two giveaways overall. Taking care of the ball has been their specialty along with an offensive line giving time to throw; just three sacks in three games is an NFL best for all starting quarterbacks.
Both men should have their share of touchdowns Sunday. The game-changer will come in who blinks first in a game that could have more turnovers than punts.
2. The Rams' defensive front vs. Arizona's offensive line
Another reason to think the mistakes could come from Murray is the Cardinals' banged-up offensive line. Three starters are at risk of being out Sunday: right tackle Kelvin Beachum (ribs), right guard Justin Murray (back), and left guard Justin Pugh (back).
All three did not participate in practice Thursday, a bad sign for their availability this weekend. The Cardinals, who have dealt with offensive line volatility throughout their summer, are trying to make the best of a bad situation.
"You roll with it and it's next man up," Cardinals offensive line/run game coordinator Sean Kugler explained to reporters this week. "My father was a firefighter, and somebody goes down, you pick up the hose and you go."
But this type of patchwork scenario against three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald? Chances are you're not going to escape this road game without a turnover. Donald sacked Brady last week and added a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hit. Murray could become easy prey for him.
3. Special teams and a special edge
The Cardinals, even while winning, have made some of the missteps any young team is bound to make as they grow. Last week, Matt Prater's 68-yard field goal attempt turned into an infamous 109-yard Kick-6, returned by the lowly Jaguars for a touchdown.
"That's about as big a moment of adversity as you can face in an NFL football game to have something like that happen right before the half," Kingsbury explained. "Even when we went down two scores, guys didn't blink. I was really proud of that effort."
Problem is, it's easy to come back like that against a winless team. They can't afford to do it with a raucous home crowd at SoFi Stadium, the site of this year's Super Bowl. For the first time in ages, fans are providing a home-field advantage to an NFL team based in Los Angeles.
"The best way I can describe that atmosphere," McVay said this week, "is electric. I know that (SoFi) was set up in a manner that was designed to have that noise be a factor, and I think that definitely played a hand."
The Cardinals, so far, have played two road games but neither were in environments known to be intimidating: Tennessee (where the game was a blowout anyway) and Jacksonville. The challenge of a mistake-free game in front of this crowd is a new experience for them at this level.
Expect a high-scoring affair between two of the league's most potent offenses. One of the surest bets in football this weekend is the over (currently at 54.5) as both teams are capable of scoring 40-plus points. The Cardinals haven't gone a game this season with less than 31.
In the end, the Rams' momentum should win out against a confident Cardinals team that will still make some noise later in the year. McVay and company have been in these types of pressure-packed situations before; don't discount his ability to keep the team focused.
"If you said, 'Hey, who were the teams who were 3-0 last year or previous years?' I bet you really couldn't remember," he told the AP this week. "There are so many football games to go ahead. We have to have steady improvement."
Those small steps up the ladder should continue. Even a pesky Kingsbury and the Cardinals will need to learn to lose a few more of these close games against top-tier opponents before they start to win them.
Prediction: Rams 35, Cardinals 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.