If there's such a thing as a make-or-break game this early in the NFL season, this could be it for the Arizona Cardinals.
The 3-3 Cards have won two straight games but are still 1.5 games behind the 4-1 Seattle Seahawks, whom the Cards host Sunday night, for first place in the NFC West division. A win would put the Cardinals in the thick of the playoff picture and division race, while a loss would send them back below .500 as they prepare to play six of their final nine games on the road.
The Seahawks have won three consecutive games over the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium, and the last two victories have come rather easily. Will Seattle make it four in a row, or will Cards coach Bruce Arians finally earn his first win over the Seahawks at home?
Here are three questions and a prediction for Cards vs. Hawks, which will begin Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
1. How healthy is Carson Palmer?
The Arizona Cardinals' veteran quarterback has been shaky at best for most of the season but looked sharp in the second half of the Cards' win over the Jets on Monday, especially on a fourth-quarter drive when he completed eight passes, including a TD toss to Michael Floyd.
But Carson Palmer left the game after that drive with a hamstring injury and is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Palmer will probably play, but you have to wonder whether he'll be limited at all against a Seahawks defense that has recorded 16 sacks and allowed just four touchdown passes this season.
Palmer didn't face the Seahawks in Glendale in 2014 due to injury and played in only the first half of last year's game because the Cards' playoff position had already been set. He threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns at Seattle last season, his last full game vs. the Seahawks. Health permitting, can Palmer come close to replicating that performance Sunday?
2. Can the Cards get even on the ground?
If you're looking for the No. 1 reason why the Seahawks have outscored the Cardinals 105-34 in their last three games in Glendale, look no further than this.
A big reason @AZCardinals have lost three straight to Seahawks in AZ: Cards have been outrushed 547-86 in those three games.
— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) October 21, 2016
The good news is the Cards have never been more primed to get even (or better) with the Seahawks in the rushing department, thanks to the beast known as David Johnson. The second-year pro is third in the NFL in rushing yards and is coming off a 111-yard, two-touchdown performance against a Jets defense that came into the game as the NFL's best team against the run.
The Seahawks have an outstanding running back of their own in Christine Michael, who has rushed for 354 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns in just five games. Also, the Seahawks are among the NFL's best teams against the run. But if the Cards are finally going to beat Seattle at home, they'll need to at least match the Seahawks blow for blow on the ground. Can Johnson work his magic once again?
3. Will the Cards rattle Russell Wilson?
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sure does like playing in Arizona. In his last three games at University of Phoenix Stadium, the fifth-year pro has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He has completed 64.8 percent of his passes and averaged 257 passing yards in those games.
The Cardinals will count on their new and improved pass rush led by second-year linebacker Markus Golden and free-agent pickup Chandler Jones to make Wilson uncomfortable. The problem is that, while Wilson isn't running the ball as much as he used to, he's still an extremely mobile quarterback who can extend plays with his feet.
Arizona's secondary looked sharp Monday night against the Jets, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is no Russell Wilson. Will the Cards finally force a turnover over the three-time Pro Bowler -- or at least cause him to be less accurate than he has been in years past in Glendale?
The Seahawks are 4-1 but are lucky to be there. They've already had a couple squeakers at home, including last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons that ended on a highly questionable no-call on cornerback Richard Sherman. Nonetheless, the Hawks have enjoyed ownership over the Cardinals at UOP Stadium in recent years, and they'll arrive in Glendale with that psychological edge.
David Johnson seems to be matchup-proof, but Palmer will need to do his part Sunday, and he could be without speedy receiver John Brown, who is doubtful after being diagnosed with sickle cell trait. The Seahawks will probably be missing safety Kam Chancellor, but their secondary is still formidable, and Palmer will have to have his best game of the season in order to be effective against Sherman & Co.
The X-factor for Seattle is tight end Jimmy Graham, who is finally healthy after missing a significant portion of last season -- and when he's 100 percent, he's arguably every bit as good as Rob Gronkowski. The Cardinals' secondary has been better recently but is still prone to giving up big plays -- and Wilson, who has developed a strong rapport with Graham, is perfectly capable of picking Arizona apart.
Look for Sunday night's game to be more competitive than the most recent meetings between these two teams in Arizona have been, but expect a similar end result, as Wilson is likely to make more big plays and fewer mistakes than his counterpart.
Seahawks 23, Cardinals 17