After an impressive victory over the Washington Redskins, the Arizona Cardinals finally have some wind at their back.
After a six-game winning streak came to a crashing halt with a 38-6 loss to the Ravens, the Miami Dolphins appear to be headed in the other direction.
It's no secret the 5-6-1 Cardinals need to win out in order to have any shot at advancing to the playoffs for the third straight season. Can they keep hope alive when they travel to Miami to face the 7-5 Dolphins?
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Here are three questions and a prediction for Cards vs. Fins, which will begin at 11 a.m. Arizona time Sunday.
1. Can the Cards overcome the East Coast Beast?
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said it's more of a mental issue than anything, and it's one the Cardinals will have to overcome in order to stay in the playoff chase.
The Cards are just 1-4 on the road this season, including an 0-3 mark in the Eastern time zone, which includes double-digit defeats against the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. To be fair, the Panthers and Falcons were both well-rested as they were coming off a bye week -- but nonetheless, this isn't a good sign heading into Miami, where the Dolphins are 5-1 this year.
#AZCardinals on the East Coast: 0-3, -44 point differential. #AZCardinals everywhere else: 5-3-1, +69 point differential.
— Kyle Odegard (@Kyle_Odegard) December 9, 2016
After last weekend's impressive win, the Cards finally have some momentum on their side. Will it be enough to override the psychological hurdle that East Coast trips have become for this team?
2. Can Carson keep it up?
Carson Palmer has experienced quite a dropoff from his MVP-caliber campaign last season, but he had arguably his best game in a Cardinals uniform last Sunday. Against the Redskins, the 36-year-old quarterback competed 30 of 46 passes for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions -- and he did it all while defenders were constantly breathing down his neck.
The Cards' offensive line is in rough shape thanks to injuries, and as a result, Palmer has had to run for his life early and often in recent games. Enter Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who have combined for 13.5 sacks this season. Wake also has three forced fumbles, and only two players have lost more fumbles this season than Palmer (four).
Palmer has been sacked 19 times and he's thrown eight interceptions vs. just seven touchdowns in five road games this season. Can he turn it around against a Dolphins defense looking to make amends after giving up 381 yards and four touchdowns to Joe Flacco last weekend?
3. Will Ajayi jump on the Cards early?
I had a chance to catch Jay Ajayi in person when Boise State played Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago. The man is a beast. He rushed for well over 100 yards and three touchdowns in the first half to lead his Broncos past the Wildcats.
The 23-year-old running back is now tearing it up in the NFL, as he's well on his way to 1,000 rushing yards this season despite not being the Dolphins' starting rusher at the beginning of the year. Ajayi is third in the NFL in yards per carry (5.2) and tied for second in runs of 20 yards or more (nine). In fact, Pro Football Focus actually grades him higher than another second-year pro, Cards running back David Johnson.
Jay Ajayi doesn't really mind if his offensive line takes a play off or two pic.twitter.com/ro3epAEAlo
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 6, 2016
The Cardinals are still among the NFL's best in yards allowed per rush (3.8) and per game (97.9), but the Falcons' Davonta Freeman and the Redskins' Robert Kelley made some inroads against the Cards' defense in the last two weeks. Will Ajayi be able to do the same?
The Cardinals' pass rush is one of the NFL's most improved units from last season; only three teams have recorded more sacks than the Cards' 31 this year. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill has been sacked eight times in the last three games, and the trio of linebackers Markus Golden and Chandler Jones and defensive end Calais Campbell will be hungry to add to that total. (Golden is dealing with a hamstring injury and is questionable for Sunday, but Arians said Golden should be good to go.)
A number of elements in this game, including the East Coast factor, seem to line up against the Cardinals. But the Dolphins actually seem to be a decent matchup for the Cards, especially in the running game, as the Dolphins are the NFL's third-worst team in yards allowed per rush (4.7) and per game (130.3). There's no reason to think David Johnson's MVP-caliber season won't continue Sunday.
The Dolphins appear to be reeling, and the Cardinals are coming off a victory but still have a desperate mindset heading into Sunday. Look for Arizona to improve to .500 and remain in the playoff race for at least one more week.
Cardinals 24, Dolphins 20