Quarterback Carson Palmer is healthy, and his presence gives the Cardinals a good start for 2015.
It's not just free to dream this time of year, it's expected.
NFL teams with the longest championship odds can talk themselves into a possible playoff run, since there's not yet regular season evidence to the contrary. And then, once you're in the playoffs, well, it's only a few weeks of playing perfect football to reach the Super Bowl.
Before this optimism turns a glass half-full into an overflowing one, some reality from Rashad Johnson, the veteran Cardinals safety who's been a part of three double-digit win teams, but also a pair of 5-11 clubs.
"I'm pretty sure every team comes into the (season) expecting to go to the Super Bowl, but some teams have a little more doubt than others," Johnson said. "I can say I don't think there's any doubt in this locker room."
The 2015 Cardinals have plenty of reason to believe. They went 6-0 when quarterback Carson Palmer started last season, and were 11-3 with
either him or Drew Stanton at the helm. As everyone is familiar, the drop to the third-stringer was precipitous, as the Cards lost their final three games with little semblance of an offense down the stretch.
So while last season's official finish of 11-5 with a wild card playoff berth would many times be considered a success, it felt like a disappointment. But now, with Palmer back fully from a torn ACL – not to mention the healthy returns of running back Andre Ellington, cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu – the expectations have been raised again.
The Cardinals begin the regular season at home on Sunday against the Saints, and while a few injuries have surfaced, Palmer is ready to roll and the cupboard is nearly back to full stock.
"After Week 10 last year, things were kind of falling apart, in terms of health-wise for our ballclub," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Everybody's back healthy now. We have no excuses to not go out and start fast."
The first test isn't an easy one. The Saints traded star tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks for center Max Unger in the offseason, which could lead to a more balanced offense. The top priority for the Cardinals, though, will still be slowing down prolific quarterback Drew Brees, who is 36 but hasn't shown many signs of aging.
"All the rules your coach tells you, when you get out there on the field, he'll defy that," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "That's just what
he does. The guy's a winner. If you let him get going, it can be a long day."
If the Saints do run more than usual, the revamped defensive line expects to hold stout. Fourth-round pick Rodney Gunter will make his NFL debut as the starting nose tackle, but the team has enviable depth which will be rotated frequently.
Like with the Saints, the Cardinals' running situation has been a hot topic, and the offense enters with Ellington, Chris Johnson and David Johnson as a trio of legitimate options. Even so, it will be tempting for coach Bruce Arians to air it out.
The Saints struggled defensively last year and will be without cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Jairus Byrd. Michael Floyd is still recovering from the three dislocated fingers he suffered early in camp, but expects to play. If he does, it could be hard for the Saints' depleted secondary to adequately match up with wideouts Floyd, Fitzgerald and John Brown.
The Cardinals' obstacle will be replacing Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati (knee) and right tackle Bobby Massie (suspension) on the offensive line. If fill-ins Ted Larsen and Earl Watford, along with the others, can keep Palmer upright, the offense should be able to put up points.
The Cardinals could have one of the most-balanced teams in the NFL in 2015. When Palmer played last season the offense was solid, and the defense was impressive throughout. Arians, though, doesn't want to look back.
"This team has nothing to do, really, with last year's team," he said. "It's one of the things you do way back in the spring – everything's over. There are a lot of new faces on this roster."
Still, there is a pervasive swagger that emanates from the players who have been with Arians since 2013. They started 3-4 in that inaugural season while establishing their footing, then reeled off 18 victories over their next 23 games before the injuries to quarterbacks derailed the train.
With Palmer's return and other key pieces healthy again, it's not pie-in-the-sky thinking to place the Cardinals among the NFL's best teams in 2015.
"The expectation is high," Johnson said. "Our head coach, B.A., hasn't shied away from saying Super Bowl or bust. We believe that. We believe we have the talent here. We believe we have the camaraderie here and we believe we have the experience here to get it done."
Past images from games between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Saints