The 4-4-1 Arizona Cardinals are on the outside of the NFC playoff picture and will play five of their final seven games away from home.
That leaves the Cardinals with little margin for error as they head into Sunday's road matchup with the 5-4 Minnesota Vikings.
The Cardinals escaped with a narrow win over the 49ers last Sunday, while the Vikes are riding a four-game losing streak after opening the season with five straight wins.
Can the Cards steal a crucial win on the road? Here are three questions and a prediction for Cardinals vs. Vikings, which will begin Sunday at 11 a.m. Arizona time.
1. Will David Johnson reemerge?
It’s tough to be down on a guy after he scored both of his team’s touchdowns a week earlier, but there’s no doubt David Johnson had (for his standards) a sub-part outing against the 49ers, mainly because the 49ers loaded the box and forced quarterback Carson Palmer to beat them. It was a strategy that nearly resulted in a win for the lowly Niners, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings follow that blueprint.
Johnson continues to be dangerous through the air, but he’s been limited on the ground in the Cards’ last two games, rushing for just 79 combined yards on 29 carries. The Vikings are slightly above the NFL average with 97 rushing yards allowed per game and 4.1 yards allowed per carry, but they’ve only conceded four rushing touchdowns, tied for the NFL’s best mark.
Will the second-year phenom be able to break out of his mini-funk and help the Cardinals’ offense set the tone on the road, or will D.J. find little room to run for the third straight game?
2. Will the Vikes force Palmer to beat them?
Again, the 49ers were wise to focus on stopping Johnson and require Carson Palmer to make enough plays to beat them last Sunday. Ultimately, the 36-year-old QB did just enough to get it done, but he still looked like the same inconsistent man he’s been all season.
For the year, Palmer’s passer rating, completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio have all taken nose dives since last year’s MVP-caliber season. On Sunday, he’ll face a Vikings secondary that’s dealing with some injuries but is still among the NFL’s best units. Its 74.6 opposing passer rating is the third-lowest in the NFL, and only three teams have recorded more interceptions than the Vikings’ 10.
Palmer probably won’t need to be spectacular on Sunday; he’ll simply need to avoid dumb mistakes, such as the late interception he threw against the 49ers that led to a game-tying touchdown. Can the 14th-year pro make good decisions and avoid turnovers against the Vikings?
3. Can the Cards bear down on Bradford?
The Vikes have the NFL’s third-best passer rating defense, but the Cardinals are second in that category (71.0). They’ve recorded 24 sacks (only seven teams have more) and are tied with Seattle for an NFL-low six touchdown passes allowed.
That could spell bad news for quarterback Sam Bradford, who has been sacked 16 times during the Vikings’ four-game losing streak. Losing tackle Matt Kalil to a hip injury hasn’t been helpful for an offensive line that was already among the NFL’s worst.
In what’s likely to be a defensive struggle, the Cards’ ability to get pressure on Bradford and turn that pressure into sacks and/or turnovers will be crucial. Will Chandler Jones, Markus Golden and the Cards’ front seven be successful in making life miserable for Minnesota’s signal caller?
Injuries remain a concern for the Cards heading into Sunday. All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu (shoulder) is looking like a game-time decision. Future Hall of Fame receiver and Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald (knee, ankle) will probably play but could be limited.
The Cardinals have lost both of their Sunday road contests this season, and this Sunday, they’ll face a Vikings team that’s struggling but is 3-1 at home and desperate for a victory. Arizona is a superior team on paper, but the same was true in most of the games the Cardinals have lost this season. Unless last year’s 13-3 Cardinals, this year’s team has yet to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Here’s a harsh fact for Arizona: Bradford, who has played for three NFL teams in the last four years, has been a better, more consistent quarterback this season than Palmer has been. In what’s likely to be an ugly, defensive-minded contest, look for Bradford, who has thrown just two interceptions this year to Palmer’s eight, to make fewer mistakes and send the Cards back below .500.
Vikings 16, Cardinals 13