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Adrian Wilson: Cardinals as strong as Super Bowl team

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Despite Bruce Arians' best efforts to the contrary, the expectations are rising in Arizona.

The Cardinals' 126 points through three games trail only the record-breaking 2013 Broncos' total of 127 points. Their plus-77 point differential is the seventh-best figure since the 1970 merger. Their 76.4 percent DVOA team efficiency rating from Football Outsiders is 25.0 points higher than the next-closest team -- the Packers.

Are the Cardinals this talented, or is their 3-0 start merely the result of playing against a trio of tomato cans?

Five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson told Around The NFL's Andrew Siciliano this week that this year's Arizona squad is just as strong as Wilson's 2008 team that fell to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.

The Around The NFL Podcast is all-in on that sentiment, selecting the Cardinals as this year's Team of ATNFL.

As Grantland's Bill Barnwell outlined earlier this week, the lopsided scoreboards in September can be attributed to red-zone dominance, a flurry of return touchdowns and keeping Carson Palmer healthy.

It all starts with the quarterback.

The Cardinals are 16-2 in Palmer's last 18 games, a streak in which he has completed 398 of 618 passes (64.4 percent) for 4,962 yards, a 36:14 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 99.2 passer rating.

"He's big, he's strong, he's accurate and he can make all the throws -- and he's playing absolutely great," receiver Larry Fitzgerald told NFL Media columnist Michael Silver after the Week 3 victory over the 49ers. "Now he's with a coach who really believes in him, and Carson's completely in command."

Fitzgerald went on to tell ESPN.com's Jim Trotter that Palmer is the "best in the business" in right now.

"The way he's playing," Fitzgerald raved, "I'd put him right up there with Aaron Rodgers and anyone else."

It's the dream of most NFL quarterbacks to maintain their physical gifts long enough to take full advantage by mastering the mental aspects of the position. After overcoming his second ACL tear, nerve damage in his shoulder and a nagging elbow injury, Palmer is putting it all together just as he's hitting his comfort zone in Arians' system.

"He's incredible," Chris Johnson told Silver. "The way he prepares and calls out blitzes and knows what's going on out there, you can just tell how advanced of a quarterback he is."

Just as Palmer is playing better than he has since setting franchise records with the Bengals in 2005, Fitzgerald's current three-game stretch is his best since an epic playoff run that lifted the Cardinals into the aforementioned Super Bowl.

"Last year he had two MCL [injuries]," Arians explained to Trotter. "He kind of kept it to himself and was probably never better than 75 percent. The year before he had two [bad] hamstrings. This is the first time since we've been here together that he's been totally healthy. He's totally bought in and understands what we're trying to do."

Whereas Palmer has perfected adjustments and protections at the line of scrimmage, Fitzgerald has found a home in the slot after lining up outside versus a single cornerback for his entire career before Arians' arrival.

Fitzgerald fully understands that Hines Ward excelled in the same role en route to Super Bowl XL MVP honors in Arians' offense.

Beyond the revived Palmer-to-Fitzgerald connection, the Cardinals have a dangerous homerun hitter in John Brown and a physical outside presence in Michael Floyd.

The backfield trio has exceeded expectations as well, with Chris Johnson showing glimpses of "CJ2K" form and big-play machine David Johnson becoming the first rookie in history to score via pass, run and kick return in his first two games.

While offensive lines around the league have struggled out of the gates, the Cardinals' unit has allowed just one sack.

For all of that firepower on offense, new defensive coordinator James Bettcher has made Cardinals fans forget about Todd Bowles.

Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and rookie nose tackle Rodney Gunter have led a front seven that has shut down opposing ground attacks, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry.

There's no more versatile ball-hawking defensive back than Tyrann Mathieu, who has disrupted offenses not only with his coverage skills and instincts, but also with perfectly timed blitzes. Barring injury, he's headed for his first All Pro selection.

With Patrick Peterson regaining lockdown form and 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon shuffling between linebacker and safety, the back end of this defense flies to the ball like few others in the league.

Weak competition or not, the Cardinals' 3-0 start is no mirage -- as evidenced by their record with Palmer in the lineup over the past two and a half years. This roster is deeper and more versatile than the one that came within inches of the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy during the prime of Wilson's career.

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