Two years ago, the NFC Championship Game featured the top two offenses in the league – Carolina and Arizona. The Cardinals scored 30.6 points per game, riding the high of an MVP-style season from Carson Palmer just short of the Super Bowl.
How quickly things can change in the NFL.
Less than two years later, Palmer suddenly looks washed up, the Cardinals are struggling to compete and there’s panic in Arizona. The team has put up a total of 39 points in the first two games while losing star running back David Johnson to a devastating wrist injury. Just squeaking by the Colts last week, needing overtime for a 16-13 victory, it’s a 1-1 start that feels like it’s so much worse.
On the other side sit the visiting Cowboys, still smarting from the worst loss of the Dak Prescott era. A 42-17 shellacking at the hands of the Denver Broncos left hurt feelings, controversy over the effort of running back Ezekiel Elliott and some criticism over poor defense. But for a team that’s expected to be a Super Bowl contender, armed with some of the best young players in the league a 1-1 start feels like nothing more than a bump in the road. Dallas enters this game needing a win to tie the Eagles for the top spot in the NFC East while the Giants, perceived to be the Cowboys’ main competition, have stumbled to an embarrassing 0-3 start.
We’ll see if either team can change their storyline in this crucial early-season Monday night matchup.
Dallas at Arizona
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Cardinals’ aging stars turn back time?
This question will be one asked repeatedly to head coach Bruce Arians this season. Carson Palmer, 37, who already has four interceptions to start the season, has an ugly QB Rating of 65.6 through two games. That put him 30th in the NFL entering Week 3 behind such journeymen as Case Keenum, Mike Glennon, and Brian Hoyer.
The poor play caused Arians to say in public the “quarterback has to play better, simple.” Arians responded to the comments this week by saying that Palmer takes the criticism in stride.
But those struggles, no matter how well they’re handled, have a filter-down effect. Larry Fitzgerald, Palmer’s 34-year-old No. 1 wide receiver, is on pace for just 760 yards, the lowest output of his Hall of Fame career. With David Johnson hurt and replacement Kerwynn Williams ineffective, the running game may be placed in the hands of 32-year-old Chris Johnson. Johnson wasn’t even on the team in Week 1 after being cut after the preseason due to poor performance.
The fact it’s been 37 days (going back to their third preseason game) since the Cardinals have played at home doesn’t help an aging roster. It’s a shame, considering each member of this trio knows what it takes to be an All-Pro. But I don’t know a single athlete who’s won a battle with Father Time. The Cardinals could find themselves in serious trouble if this decline doesn’t stop.
2. How will Ezekiel Elliott rebound?
Elliott, the legal back-and-forth related to his six-week suspension aside, had the worst performance of his NFL career on the field in Week 2. With only eight rushing yards on nine carries, he became increasingly frustrated. Effort became an issue as the game went on, with NFL Network analyst LaDanian Tomlinson calling Elliott out. Onlookers could see him failing to pursue an interception late in the game while not communicating with his team on the sideline.
“It’s definitely not me,” Elliott said Friday, claiming there was “no excuse” for the lack of effort. “I was just very frustrated. But I just can’t do that. Being one of the leaders on the team and being a guy that people count on, I can’t put that type of stuff on film.”
It’s easy to forget last year’s leading rusher is only in his second NFL season. You’re going to have these types of growing pains but it’s how Elliott rebounds from his mistakes that will matter.
The Cardinals offer their own challenge Monday night. Entering Week 3, they led the league in rushing defense (79.0 ypg). Now, those stats could be deceiving; Ameer Abdullah and Frank Gore aren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard. But it’s been a lone bright spot for them in a season full of problems thus far.
Can Elliott put the foot back down on the accelerator? Or will his first real bout of criticism regarding on-field play linger into Monday night’s performance?
3. Can the Cowboys’ defense turn the ball over?
After two games, the Cardinals found themselves tied for 27th in the NFL with a minus-three turnover margin. Dallas is a modest plus-1, but clearly suffered a setback in Week 2. Trevor Siemian shredded their secondary, throwing for four touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent (68.8) of his passes.
Palmer, by comparison is an older quarterback with limited mobility and a so-so offensive line. It’s similar to the Eli Manning situation in Week 1 where the Cowboys were very effective, holding Manning without a touchdown and picking the ball off in a crucial situation. If the defense can add a few more interceptions or even cause a fumble by Cardinals’ depleted backfield that may be all it takes to turn the game in Dallas’ favor.
If you want to be a Super Bowl contender, you don’t turn an embarrassing game into a two-game losing streak. Just take a look at the Patriots. Tom Brady went from perhaps one of his worst season openers, a loss to the Chiefs on national television, and threw for 447 yards against the Saints in Week 2. New Orleans never stood a chance against the motivated defending champs.
For the young Cowboys to take that next step, they need to do the same. Expect a strong bounce-back performance from the team many still believe will be the NFC’s best come January.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Cardinals 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.