A glance at the top storylines for the Cardinals-Falcons game Sunday at Georgia Dome in Atlanta:
**Protecting Palmer and the Freeney effect
Carson Palmer has already been sacked more this season that all of last season. The way the offensive line is trending, it isn't going in the right direction, either. The Vikings overall have a better defense than the Falcons, but the line will still be dealing with noise in a dome and the reality that they are having as many mental errors as physical. Meanwhile, they will see former Cardinal Dwight Freeney on the other side this week. Freeney is only playing about 33 percent of the Falcons' defensive snaps (he has three sacks) but Vic Beasley has credited having the veteran around to sparking his breakout season (9½ sacks). Freeney also knows how to exploit inexperienced tackles – like John Wetzel, or D.J. Humphries.
So many weapons against the No. 1 defense
The Cardinals still have the No. 1-ranked defense. But they face one of the best offenses in the league, the best one they've seen this season, and one leading the NFL in scoring at 32 points a game. Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones is a deadly combination, but the strength of this unit is that they don't have to rely on Jones to carry the offense. The Cards have been steady for the most part – defensively, they allowed only 16 points in Minnesota, underscoring the issues on special teams and the bad pick-6 – but will be tested in a place where historically the Cards have had too many defensive breakdowns.
P2 versus Julio
The leadup to this matchup in 2014 got headlines, in part because the players talked about their matchups in college (Peterson at LSU, Jones at Alabama) and Peterson felt he had done well. By the time their first NFL game ended, Jones was the clear winner with 189 yards, 10 catches and a score. That was also during Peterson's roller-coaster season with what was later found to be a diabetes issue. Peterson is a better player now, and is in better shape. Jones isn't the kind of player who gets shut down. But if Peterson can keep him from the end zone or making multiple huge plays, it'll go a long way in furthering the Cardinals' cause.
Teams don't even have to be that Special
The Falcons aren't exactly one of the best teams in the NFL on special teams, nor one of the worst. But that's exactly why the Cardinals need to at least play this one to a draw. There were multiple problems again last week in Minnesota, but again, special teams contributed to them on the kickoff return for a touchdown and it's a theme the Cardinals have not been able to get away from all season. Taking that off the table as a negative is a must for the Cards if they want to win on the road.
The playoffs have arrived
Carson Palmer said it – even though many have a hard time believing the Cardinals can make the playoffs, he still does believe. Maybe they are already there. As one player put it, the Cardinals have six playoff games left in the regular season. Mathematically, a one-and-done scenario probably isn't true this weekend. But realistically, it might be. With a game against an NFC foe, winning this weekend is paramount. You can talk all day about scenarios and the like, but the bottom line is that the Cardinals need wins. Lots of them.