The Arizona Cardinals opened the season exactly how they wanted: With a convincing 31-19 home win over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
Can the Cards get to 2-0 by toppling the Chicago Bears this weekend? Here are three questions and a prediction for Sunday’s matchup at Soldier Field, beginning at 10 a.m.
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1. Can Chris Johnson carry the load?
In one month’s time, Chris Johnson has gone from unemployed to the likely featured back on a playoff-caliber team. With starting RB Andre Ellington likely out with a knee injury, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians named Johnson the probable starting back for Sunday’s matchup in Chicago.
Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler and 2009 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, looked sharp during the Cards’ final preseason game and their first regular-season game, combining for 82 yards on 21 carries in those two games. But while he has never missed an NFL game due to injury, one has to question the durability of Johnson, who turns 30 on Wednesday. The Bears’ rushing defense is mediocre at best, but will Johnson be up for the challenge?
2. Can the Cards contain Forte?
The Cardinals were outstanding against the run in their Week 1 win over the Saints, limiting Mark Ingram and the rest of New Orleans’ backfield to 54 rushing yards. But the Cards were burned by New Orleans’ rushers in the receiving game (154 yards on 15 receptions), especially on screen passes in which the Cards brought additional pressure upon the quarterback.
That brings us to the Bears’ Matt Forte, whose 102 receptions last season were the most by a running back and the fourth-most among all NFL players. Drew Brees was able to exploit the Cardinals’ blitz by targeting his running backs last week; will Bears QB Jay Cutler abuse the Cards in the same way by taking advantage of a dynamic weapon like Forte?
3. Who will win the Peterson-Jeffery battle?
Dealing with diabetes for most of last season, it’s easy to understand why four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson struggled against opposing teams’ top wide receivers in 2014. But Peterson now has his diabetes under control, and it showed Sunday against the Saints when he limited wide receiver Brandin Cooks to just 49 receiving yards.
Peterson’s life won’t get any easier Sunday, as he’s expected to match up against Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery, who has combined for 2,554 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in his last two seasons. It’s not realistic to expect Peterson to shut Jeffery down entirely, but limiting the 2013 Pro Bowler to under 100 yards, as the Packers did last week in their 31-23 win in Chicago, will go a long way toward getting the Cardinals to 2-0.
The X-factor for the Bears on Sunday will be tight end Martellus Bennett, who’s coming off a 900-yard season and scored a touchdown against Green Bay last week. The Cards have been one of the NFL’s worst teams against opposing tight ends, so expect Cutler to target Bennett early and often to open up the Bears’ offense.
Chicago’s defense, however, is not an elite group – and considering the amount of talent and speed at his disposal, there’s no reason to think Carson Palmer won’t be able to pick it apart in the same way he did against the Saints.
The injury-riddled Packers put up 31 points in Chicago last week. The Cards should be able to do at least the same amount of damage, with or without Ellington.
Cardinals 35, Bears 20