GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The season might be three games old but the Arizona Cardinals have proved they’re among the best teams in football -- if not the best. They won big over the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers in consecutive weeks. Can the Cardinals continue their domination all the way to Super Bowl 50? The stats say it’s possible. Arizona’s point differential of plus-77 through three games is the sixth highest since 1980 through that stretch, and four of the five prior teams have gone to the Super Bowl. Two have won it, the 1991 Washington Redskins and 1996 Green Bay Packers.
Here are five reasons the Cardinals will hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy:
Quarterback Carson Palmer: He is 16-2 in his past 18 games, the best record in the NFL over that time for a qualifying QB, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His last loss was 638 days ago, Week 17 of 2013. He also has been the best quarterback during that stretch, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 4,962 yards, 36 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Last season, the Cardinals were 6-0 with him, 5-6 without him (including the playoffs). Palmer is proving he’s a top-flight quarterback. He’s tied for second in the league in touchdown passes (nine) with Tom Brady and leads the league’s highest-scoring offense (42 points per game) with pure efficiency. He’s averaging 268 yards passing per game, completing 63.6 percent of his passes. “This is the healthiest he has been in two to three years,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “With the nerve damage in the shoulder he had to change his mechanics a little bit, and then the knee. He is probably five years younger and he is in such great shape now that I don’t want to jinx him.”
Running game: For the first time under Arians, the Cardinals have a deep and reliable backfield. After averaging a league-low 3.29 yards per carry last season, the Cardinals are averaging 4.16 in 2015 behind free-agent acquisition Chris Johnson, who is starting to find his rhythm and football legs after missing offseason workouts and most of training camp. His Sunday performance of 110 yards and two touchdowns was his 14th career game with at least 100 yards and two scores, and his first since Week 9 of 2013. The Cardinals are averaging 124.7 yards a game on the ground, the most through three games since 2002. “In years past, we’ve been really good through the air,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “But when you can run the ball and gash people for fives and sixes and sevens, and then break some 15s, that really puts defenses in a bind.”
Arians: After a blowout win Week 2 in Chicago, Arians told his team they weren’t “s---.” After trouncing the 49ers on Sunday, he said: “They smell just a little better.” Arians has a way with words, but he has a way with his players that endears them to him, and makes them check their ego at the locker room door. As he has said before, he doesn’t “lay up.” Not in golf. Not in coaching. Instead of running the clock out in Week 1 with 1:44 left in the game, Arians called for a screen pass that David Johnson took 55 yards for a touchdown. Against Chicago, Arians went for it on fourth-and-1 when leading by 19. It was a first-down pass to Fitzgerald that eventually led to a touchdown.
Defense: Who needs Todd Bowles? Maybe the hype around the Cardinals’ defense isn’t there yet, but it’s getting close. Under first-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher, the Cardinals have one of the league’s top all-around defenses. They’re on top of the league in rushing yards allowed per game (84.4), an area the Cards have thrived in the past few seasons. But Arizona is excelling at causing turnovers. The Cards lead the league with seven interceptions; they’ve returned a league-high three for touchdowns. Their 6.7 defensive points per game also leads the NFL. While the defense is scoring, it’s also not allowing the competition to score. Arizona is tied for the NFL lead with four touchdowns allowed. They’re in the top 10 in at least five other categories.
Schedule: Sometimes the stars just align. When the Cardinals' schedule first came out, they had the fifth-hardest slate in the league (.557). After three weeks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out their path to home-field advantage has gotten significantly easier. They host St. Louis before traveling to Detroit (0-3) and Pittsburgh (2-1 but without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger). Then, the Cardinals host Baltimore (0-3) on Monday night before traveling to Cleveland (1-2). An 8-0 start is a distinct possibility. And with the rest of the members of the NFC West off to 1-2 starts, that might be enough to clinch the division early.