By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Last season, the AFC West sent three teams to the postseason but this year it could be their contemporaries in the NFC that do the same.
The NFC West darlings are, of course, Seattle and San Francisco and for good reason, but the Arizona Cardinals had the best record in the NFL last season of all non-playoff teams.
Football is not a game of moral victories but the Cards' 10-6 season, despite not making the playoffs, definitely helped fan the stench coming from the organization over the previous three seasons.
When Arizona made the playoffs in 2008 and 2009 on the arm of Kurt Warner, they won a combined 19 regular season games. In the three seasons after, they went 18-30 and recycled six different starting quarterbacks in that time.
Enter Carson Palmer, who had gone through a messy ending to his Cincinnati Bengals tenure and just finished up an equally muddled stint with the Oakland Raiders.
Critics looked at his almost one-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio and below-league-average completion percentage in his 24 starts with Oakland and wondered if the 33-year-old had anything left in the tank.
The Raiders were looking to move on and Arizona jumped on his low selling price. For just a sixth round pick and a conditional seventh round pick, the Cardinals got a two-time Pro Bowler.
The Cardinals benefited greatly from the trade and, with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd at his disposal, Palmer was the eighth-most-accurate quarterback of passers that started at least 10 games. He also threw for the eighth-most passing yards in 2013 despite the worst offensive line in football protecting him, per Pro Football Focus.
Palmer started the 2014 season on the right track as well. In an 18-17 win over the San Diego Chargers in Week 1, Palmer hit on 65 percent of his passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
And why shouldn't the good times keep on rolling? The Cardinals improved their offensive line, signing left tackle Jared Veldheer from the Raiders and plugging right tackle Bobby Massie back into the starting lineup. Arizona also signed 6-foot-5, pass-catching tight end John Carlson as Palmer's third option.
What hasn't even been mentioned yet is that the Cardinals' defense gave up the seventh-fewest points per game last season, behind only playoff teams, and was the best run-stopping unit in the league.
And if that wasn't enough, the Super Bowl will be hosted in the same stadium the Cardinals play their games. If that doesn't serve as motivation for them, nothing will.
But don't go drinking the red Kool-Aid just yet; there are some legitimate questions about this team.
Starting with the defense, the linebacker corps is decimated -- headlined by the departure of leading tackler and team captain Karlos Dansby via free agency. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the 2014 season following his second violation of the league's substance abuse policy in as many years.
Starting defensive tackle Darnell Dockett tore his ACL in August, ending his campaign, and ninth-all-time sack-getter John Abraham is reportedly considering retirement after he suffered a concussion against the Chargers in Week 1.
The Cardinals also have to deal with an unforgiving schedule, which is understandable given the division in which they play. In the last six weeks of the season, Arizona will have to play in Seattle against "The 12th Man," the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, the Chiefs, at the Rams, against the Seahawks again and will face off against the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 17.
But NFL teams' playoff chances are made or broken with their quarterback.
Palmer has led his team to the playoffs twice, with the Bengals in 2005 and 2009. Palmer tore his ACL on his first pass of the '05 playoffs and had a very mediocre '09 Wild Card game against the Jets that the Bengals lost in Cincinnati.
So, obviously Palmer has a lot to prove in terms of being a playoff quarterback. To put it in an even graver perspective, Palmer is the 25th all-time career passing yards leader and 23 of the 24 quarterbacks ahead of him have won at least one playoff game.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that Palmer was marooned on the lowly Bengals for most of his career. Most seasons they either didn't field a competent defense or didn't have any threatening skill players outside of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh.
But Palmer's not completely blameless. The only two active quarterbacks his age or younger that have thrown more interceptions in their careers are Eli Manning and Drew Brees -- and they've both played more games than Palmer and have won Super Bowls.
Palmer's 86.1 career passer rating is also a pedestrian 10th among active quarterbacks that have thrown at least 1,500 pass attempts, according to Pro Football Reference. This score just edges out that of Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and is three points behind that of now-defunct Raiders QB Matt Schaub.
When looking at Palmer's performance in close games last season, he becomes something of an enigma. He led three 4th quarter comebacks, per PFR, and this includes a 17-10 win against the Seahawks in the impenetrable CenturyLink Field during which Palmer threw his only touchdown of the game -- a 31-yard beauty to Floyd -- after throwing four interceptions.
Per NFL.com, when trailing by between one and eight points last season, Palmer had a 90.8 quarterback rating -- higher than those of Tom Brady and Andrew Luck in similar situations.
It's when the Cardinals are down by two scores that game situations really start to affect Palmer.
When trying to overcome a deficit between nine and 16 points, Palmer's accuracy falls to less than 60 percent and he threw only one touchdown compared to four interceptions -- leading to a dismal 61.8 QBR.
To serve as a comparison, when Warner led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in '08 he had a 91.2 QBR when trailing by between nine and 16 points. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two, but it speaks to the holes Palmer and the Cardinals need to patch up if they want to get back to the big game.
If the Cardinals' defense can match what it did last season and the offense evolves with running back Andre Ellington now starting after the one-year Rashard Mendenhall rental, another 10-6 season should send Arizona to the playoffs.
At this point in his career, Palmer is what he is and he won't change drastically. He'll have big-yardage games and high-turnover games. He can't carry the team on his back, but he's able enough to win games and capable of getting on a hot streak.
From Weeks 10 through 13 last season (following the Cardinals' Week 9 bye), Palmer completed over 65 percent of his passes for more than 1,200 yards and had nine touchdowns against just three interceptions for an average QBR of 103.
It was only four games, but so are the NFL playoffs.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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