Considered by most to be a Super Bowl contender just a month ago, the Arizona Cardinals suddenly find themselves in dire straits.
The Cards are 1-3 and will be without the services of quarterback Carson Palmer when they take the field in Santa Clara, California on Thursday night to face the 1-3 San Francisco 49ers.
Can the Cards right the ship with their backup quarterback under center, or will their NFC West rivals add to their misery? Here are three questions and a prediction for Cards vs. Niners, which begins Thursday at 5:25 p.m.
1. Will the Drew Stanton of 2014 reappear?
When Cards QB Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending ACL injury two years ago, Drew Stanton put in some quality work in his place – until he went down with an injury himself. He wasn’t spectacular, but he avoided major mistakes and gave the Cardinals a chance to win more often than not.
We haven’t seen a lot of 2016 Drew Stanton, but what we have seen hasn’t resembled the 2014 version. He was atrocious during preseason play, completing just 11 of 28 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He threw another pair of INTs in relief of Palmer late in last week’s game, albeit in a must-throw situation.
Palmer is sidelined this week due to a concussion, and Stanton only had a couple days to practice with the Cards’ first-team offense. On the plus side, Stanton will face a middle-of-the-road 49ers pass defense that will be without three-time Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Will the 32-year-old Stanton be more accurate and less mistake-prone than we’ve seen from him so far this season, or will it be more of the same Thursday night?
2. Can David Johnson be the beast the Cards need?
If Stanton can avoid turning the ball over Thursday, the Cardinals may be able to ride running back David Johnson to victory. The second-year pro leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage with 510 through four games, and he’s already recorded three rushing touchdowns this season.
This is a problem for the 49ers, who come into Thursday night’s game as the NFL’s worst team in rushing yards allowed per game (140.5). Also, only nine teams have allowed more yards per carry (4.3) than San Francisco has.
If Johnson and the Cardinals can establish the run early in the game, it will lighten Stanton’s load significantly. Can the 2015 third-round pick take advantage of the matchup and run wild on the Niners?
3. Will we see the old Honey Badger?
Much like the Cardinals need the 2014 Drew Stanton on Thursday, they could really use the 2015 Tyrann Mathieu, as well.
The Honey Badger was an All-Pro selection last season but has been easing his way back onto the field due to an ACL injury he suffered late last season. Well, earlier this week, Mathieu put his foot down, declaring he wants to move from his most recent role of deep safety and back into the slot cornerback position, where he thrived last year.
— NFL (@NFL) October 5, 2016
If Mathieu does indeed slide back into that role Thursday, will we see the hard-hitting, turnover-causing, game-changing Badger who helped lead the Cardinals to a 13-win season in 2015?
There are plenty of reasons to think the Cardinals will win Thursday night. David Johnson has a fantastic matchup looming. The Cardinals’ rushing defense looked much better last weekend vs. the Rams than they did a week earlier. Wide receiver John Brown finally looks like himself after dealing with concussion symptoms. And, well, the 49ers just aren't that good.
But the one thing I just can’t get over is Stanton. He hasn’t just been below-average; he’s been downright awful in limited action this season. Will things really change that drastically in a four-day span, especially on the road against a 49ers team that has allowed just 24 points in two home games?
I’ve picked the Cardinals to win each of their first four games, and like the team itself, I’m 1-3. I probably would’ve gone with San Francisco to win Thursday even if Palmer were playing. The fact that he’s out just made the decision easier.
Here’s hoping the Cardinals will be 2-3 and I’ll be 1-4 come Friday morning.
49ers 19, Cardinals 10