<
>

Five reasons the Cardinals beat the Bengals

TEMPE, Ariz. -- If there’s a game that means more to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer this season than Sunday’s, good luck finding it.

If Palmer can lead the Cardinals past his old team, the Cincinnati Bengals, he will have knocked off one of the league’s top three teams. A win Sunday night on national TV will allow Arizona to make a strong case to be a favorite to win the NFC. A dominating performance could solidify the Cardinals as a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

Here are five reasons the Cardinals and Palmer can beat Cincinnati:

Chris Johnson and the run game: There’s one area of the Bengals’ defense Arizona could exploit over and over throughout Sunday night’s game. Cincinnati has had trouble stopping the run on a per-play basis. The Bengals are allowing 4.7 yards per carry. The Cardinals are averaging 4.37 as a team, and leading rusher Chris Johnson is averaging 4.42 yards. If the Cardinals can pound out runs of three, four or five yards consistently, then the likelihood of either Johnson or Andre Ellington breaking a big run increases significantly. The Cardinals’ two lowest rushing totals this season came in both of their losses.

Offensive efficiency: The Cardinals are ranked third in offensive efficiency this season, according to the ESPN Power Index. The Bengals are ranked eighth in defensive efficiency. But the Bengals could be haunted by their penchant for allowing long drives. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals are allowing 5.79 plays per drive -- only five teams allow more. By comparison, the Cardinals are allowing 5.11 plays per drive, second fewest in the league. But what’s impressive is Arizona’s ability to score on drives. They’re averaging 2.5 points per drive (second most in the NFL) and just 5.38 plays per drive (22nd).

Carson Palmer’s ego: Palmer has been saying all the right things this week. He doesn’t want to rehash the past, specifically his departure from Cincinnati. He did admit that Sunday is not just another game. He’s taking the high road. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Palmer wants to beat the Bengals badly Sunday night in front of a national TV audience, especially since both teams are good. And sometimes, especially when a quarterback is involved, desire and will can outweigh skill.

Home sweet home: The Cardinals have one major advantage Sunday night: They’re playing at home. Under coach Bruce Arians, Arizona is 16-4 at University of Phoenix Stadium. Only three teams have better home records in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information, one being the Bengals. Since 2013, Cincinnati is 12-8 on the road.

Honey Badger doesn’t care who he’s covering: While Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson will be matched up on the Bengals’ top receiver, A.J. Green, safety Tyrann Mathieu draws the assignment of tight end Tyler Eifert. If Peterson continues to play at the level he has, Green shouldn’t be much of a factor. Peterson has allowed just 17 receptions this year on 35 targets. Mathieu has allowed 32 catches on 56 targets for six touchdowns and three interceptions. If Mathieu can neutralize Eifert, the Bengals won’t have much of a passing game left.