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Cardinals Looking For NFC West Success

Palmer's return crucial; Only played in one of six division games in 2014


Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu tackles 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin during the team's meeting last season in Arizona.

An undefeated start has bolstered the Cardinals' status as contenders in the NFC, but right now, they're aiming smaller.

In Bruce Arians' two seasons at the helm, the team has reeled off a pair of double-digit win seasons. Despite that success, the Cardinals are just 5-7 in the NFC West during that time.

For a group with Super Bowl aspirations, it's much tougher sledding without the benefit of a first-round bye or home field advantage – a pair of things that are almost completely out of the discussion without a division title.

"You've got to win the West if you are going to go where you want to go, and San Francisco and Seattle have been the problem," coach Bruce Arians said.

With last Sunday's rout of the Bears, the Cardinals improved to 18-4 outside the division, and now hope to reverse their

fortunes in the NFC West beginning Sunday at home against the 49ers. There's one extremely helpful piece back in the fold, as a healthy Carson Palmer will lead the way after missing all but one game against divisional foes in 2014 with injuries.

"We haven't had our alpha dog behind the center," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We definitely believe in the next-man-up mentality and that's never going to change, but for us to be the team we want to be, and be where we want to be at the end of the year, we need Carson healthy and under center at all times."

The Cardinals are comfortable favorites against San Francisco after an impressive two-week stretch to begin the season. Palmer is playing some of the best football of his career, entering the contest with a 124.4 quarterback rating, and hopes to keep it rolling against a familiar foe.

"These are the games you can't wait for," Palmer said. "These are the ones that when the schedule comes out you look at Week 3 and then you see what's behind it right after Week 4 (the Rams). It's exciting to see who your opener is and if it's home or away and then when's our first NFC West game."

The Cardinals are the highest-scoring team in the NFL, and could get some reinforcement on an offensive line which has

held up pretty well despite missing a pair of projected starters. This could be the Cardinals debut of Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati, who missed the first two games with a knee injury, although he is questionable and has yet to practice fully yet.

Last year's starting right tackle, Bobby Massie, is eligible to return after a two-game suspension, but Arians hasn't said whether it will be Massie or his fill-in, Earl Watford, with the starting group.

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is coming off a nine-catch, 112-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece against the Bears and is fifth in the league with 199 receiving yards through two games. The offense is so multi-dimensional, though, that it could very well be a different player who leads the charge this week.

"Coach Arians is like a mad scientist," Fitzgerald said. "He's always finding ways to get guys involved, new ways to create mismatches for his playmakers. And that's the really exciting thing. You come in here on Wednesday morning (for game-plan installation) and have no idea what to expect."

The 49ers seem more straightforward offensively, with their ideal strategy beginning and ending with the running game. Carlos Hyde had a monster starting debut—26 carries, 168 yards, two touchdowns -- in a 20-3 Week 1 win over the Vikings, but was banged up and had a small impact in last week's blowout loss to the Steelers.

He still leads the NFL in rushing and has left a strong impression on the Cardinals, who know it will be vital to limit both Hyde and quarterback Colin Kaepernick's effectiveness on the ground.

"They're going to make it a physical ballgame," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "It'll probably just be all run game. We have to be prepared for that."

If all goes as planned, the Cardinals will handle the ground game, continue their offensive outburst and notch their first victory within the division.

"We are very excited about this opportunity to hopefully get to 3-0 and 1-0 in the West," Palmer said. "That would be huge, but it won't be easy. Everybody knows that."

Images of the key players for this week's opponent, the San Francisco 49ers

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