After taking last week off, the Arizona Cardinals are set to kick off the second half of their season -- and if they want to make the playoffs for the third straight year, the second half will need to be much better than the first.
The first step comes Sunday when the 3-4-1 Cards host the 1-7 San Francisco 49ers, who are riding a seven-game losing streak. Behind backup quarterback Drew Stanton, the Cards handed the Niners a 33-21 loss in the Bay Area last month.
Can Arizona beat its NFC West division rivals for the fourth straight time? Here are three questions and a prediction for Cards vs. 49ers, which will begin Sunday at 2:25 p.m. in Glendale.
1. Will David Johnson set team records?
Well, this should be fun. The 49ers are allowing an NFL-worst 193 rushing yards per game (for perspective, Cleveland, the second-worst team against the run, is allowing 143.7), and they've allowed a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-record seven consecutive games.
Enter David Johnson, the Cardinals' second-year running back who already has over 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season. Johnson, the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month in October, rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers five weeks ago.
Johnson should have no problem reaching the century mark again against San Francisco, but can he take over the game, as he tends to do? If he approaches 200 rushing yards on Sunday, it's hard to see how the 49ers will be able to keep up.
2. Can the Cards contain Kaepernick?
Colin Kaepernick isn't the elite QB he seemed destined to become several years ago, but the 49ers' sixth-year pro is a good fit in coach Chip Kelly's offense. After replacing Blaine Gabbert as the team's starting QB, Kaepernick has looked sharp at times, and he's coming off a 398-yard, two-touchdown performance in a losing effort against the Saints last weekend.
Kaepernick was terrible in his last visit to Arizona: He was intercepted four times, including twice by safety Tyrann Mathieu. But the Cardinals' secondary is hurting right now, as the Honey Badger will miss Sunday's game with a shoulder injury.
Will Kaepernick take advantage of Mathieu's absence and earn a measure of payback against the Cardinals, or will Arizona's explosive pass rush led by linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden disrupt the Niners' signal caller?
3. Will Palmer have more time to throw?
Carson Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the league when he has time to throw. When he doesn't... look out.
Behind an injury-plagued offensive line, Palmer was sacked eight times in the Cards' loss at Carolina. Without guard Evan Mathis and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, both of whom are out for the season, it might not be the last time this year that the 36-year-old QB is under that kind of duress.
The good news for Arizona is the 49ers have recorded just 14 sacks this season, the sixth-fewest in the NFL. But will Palmer actually have time to operate Sunday behind the Cards' new-look O-line?
The Cardinals will play five of their final seven games on the road. That includes visits to Minnesota, Atlanta and Seattle. So yeah, Sunday's home game against the lowly 49ers falls squarely within the "must-win" category.
Expect the Cards to get it done. They've had a week to rest up and, just as importantly, they've had two weeks to stew over their frustrating defeat in Carolina. As long as Johnson runs well against the 49ers (as he should) and Palmer takes care of the ball, Arizona should improve to .500 on the season heading into back-to-back road tests against the Vikings and Falcons.
Cardinals 34, 49ers 14