The Cardinals will try to rebound from their loss in Denver when they play the Redskins Sunday.
An NFL season has the tendency to resemble a fun-house mirror. At some point, no matter how clear the picture looks, it reflects back a distorted view.
When the schedule came out in April, it was easy to single out Washington and Oakland as the softest two-game stretch for the Cardinals in 2014. The teams combined to lose 25 of 32 games last season and didn't make the type of wholesale changes in the offseason which forecasted a quick improvement.
The Redskins and Raiders have done nothing to dispel that thinking, starting a combined 1-8, with the only victory – by Washington – over lowly Jacksonville. If the Cardinals had a full arsenal, they would be comfortable home favorites against the Redskins on Sunday following their 3-1 start.
However, this is where injuries garble the outlook.
Defensive end Calais Campbell (knee) and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy (knee) were both hurt Sunday against the Broncos
and won't play, leaving the Cardinals without six of their starters from last year's dynamic front seven. Starting right guard Paul Fanaika is questionable with ankle and calf injuries. Punter Dave Zastudil was placed on season-ending injured reserve with his troublesome groin injury, making Drew Butler his permanent replacement.
And then there is the biggest question mark: Who will be the starting quarterback? Carson Palmer has missed three straight games with a nerve injury in his throwing shoulder, and while he's practiced each day this week, it's been in a limited capacity.
Backup Drew Stanton was knocked from last Sunday's game against the Broncos, although he has reportedly passed his concussion test. Rookie Logan Thomas is healthy, but the Cardinals would prefer to let him learn from the sidelines this year.
If the Cardinals had a full complement of players, maybe they'd look at this game differently -- as a chance to improve to 4-1 with some flair by blowing out an opponent. Instead, they'll be just fine with scratching and clawing, forgoing style points for a victory by any means necessary.
"We haven't won a game this year, even with our three wins, that was pretty," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Every
single win was just a win. It wasn't like a decisive victory. We haven't put it all together yet. We're not making any excuses, but if we win 17-16, we're going to celebrate in the locker room the same way if we won 42-10."
A lot of times, a coach will play coy with the availability of an injured quarterback to influence an opposition's game plan. For instance, the Redskins would likely send more pressure at Thomas than Palmer or Stanton, and not knowing forces them to prepare both ways.
However, Bruce Arians said this isn't gamesmanship, as he truly isn't sure who will be under center on Sunday.
"Honest to God, for the first time in 20 years, I really don't know who's starting," Arians said Friday.
Injuries have been an overriding theme on the young season, nearly overshadowing the fast start. The players continue to shake off any notion of a letdown, and linebacker Alex Okafor is already pointing to the light at the end of the tunnel.
"If there is a positive within us, it's that we're getting hit so early, there's potential to be really good and picking up steam going toward the end of the season," Okafor said.
The Cardinals just have to make sure those late games matter. The Seahawks tied them atop the NFC West with a win on Monday night and the 49ers have crept to within a half-game back. Those two teams won't go away anytime soon, and the second half of the schedule doesn't let up.
Now is the time to stack up the wins, because a 5-1 record heading into a home game against the Eagles on Oct. 26 would give the Cardinals some room for error in their aim for the playoffs.
Before the season, it looked like winning three of the first four would be the tougher chore, but the team has accomplished that. Now it must find a way to get two more, beginning on Sunday against the Redskins with a yet-to-be determined quarterback.
"Obviously, Carson's the starter around here, Drew's the No. 2 and I'm the No. 3," Thomas said. "If either one of those two guys are here, it's their game. I understand that. I understand my place. But (if it's) me, I'll handle it the way it should be."
Images of key players for this week's opponent, the Redskins