The Arizona Cardinals find themselves looking at an early 0-2 hole if they don't turn things around Sunday.
After a disappointing Week 1 home loss to the injury-depleted New England Patriots, the Cards will head back to University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who opened their season with a 31-24 road win over the Falcons.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 17, 2016
Here are three questions and a prediction for Cards vs. Bucs, which begins Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
1. Will Brandon Williams start looking like a starter?
It's the question that just won't go away for the Cardinals: Is rookie cornerback Brandon Williams up to the task of being an NFL starter opposite five-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson?
The third-round pick out of Texas A&M has played the position for less than two years of his life, and it has shown on the field despite his impressive performance during training camp that earned him the starting job. The 6-foot, 197-pounder was directly responsible for both of New England's touchdowns last weekend, including a first-quarter touchdown pass in which he was burned badly by Patriots receiver Chris Hogan.
Peterson will probably line up against Mike Evans, the Buccaneers' top receiver, more often than not Sunday. But Williams will probably be assigned to Evans on at least a handful of plays, and he'll also have to contend with 6-foot-5 veteran Vincent Jackson. Will the rookie be up to the challenge?
2. Can the Cards slow Jameis Winston?
At least one NFL insider has Buccaneers quarterback and 2015 No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jameis Winston on MVP watch after Winston turned in the third-best passer rating of any QB during Week 1. The Florida State product completed 23 of 32 passes for 281 yards, four touchdowns and an interception during Tampa Bay's victory over Atlanta.
The 6-foot-4, 227-pounder has all the tools to be a Pro Bowler. He's quick, elusive, accurate, and extremely tough to tackle. And if the Cardinals want to avoid an 0-2 start to their season, they'll have to do a better job getting after Winston, who wasn't sacked at all last weekend, than they did against Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo last week.
Newly-acquired Cards linebacker Chandler Jones had a sack and a fumble recovery against his former team last weekend. He'll need more help Sunday against Winston. Will he get it?
3. Will Palmer look like an MVP again?
On paper, Carson Palmer's first game of the season looks fine: 24 of 37, 271 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. But what paper doesn't tell you is the Cards' 36-year-old QB didn't look especially sharp on a number of throws and could (and probably should) have been picked off multiple times against New England.
But Palmer faces a favorable matchup Sunday against a Tampa Bay team that gave up 31 passing touchdowns a year ago (only four teams yielded more) and intercepted just 11 passes. The Bucs added veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, who has 13 INTs in his last three seasons, in the offseason, but they still gave up over 300 passing yards and two TDs against Falcons QB Matt Ryan last weekend.
If the demons of last season's dreadful NFC Championship game performance still haunt Palmer, Sunday will be an excellent opportunity to exorcise them. Will last season's MVP candidate once again look like a top-tier QB?
The Cardinals are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They have more than enough weapons to keep up with Tampa Bay, including running back David Johnson and a deep receiving corps led by Larry Fitzgerald, who caught his 99th and 100th career touchdown passes last weekend. They have Pro Bowlers on defense, including Peterson, Jones and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The question is whether this year's Cardinals team will be even greater than the sum of its parts. It definitely wasn't last weekend, and if that same team shows up at UOP Stadium on Sunday, it will lose to an up-and-coming Tampa Bay team.
I think this game will go one of two ways: The Cardinals will lose another heartbreaker at home, or they'll come out fired up and focused after last week's debacle and cruise to a Week 2 win.
Peterson said there has been a "different energy" and an "urgency" in practice this week that was missing last week. I believe him -- and that's why I'm going with the latter scenario.
Cardinals 34, Buccaneers 17