Cardinals season preview: Back to the playoffs?

Around The NFL's season preview goes to the NFC West.

Change we can believe in

It starts with improved health on both sides of the ball. On offense, quarterback Carson Palmer's surgically repaired knee looks fine and teammates say he's throwing the ball with more velocity than before. On defense, "Making the Leap" safety Tyrann Mathieu was "flying around" practice this summer after dealing with a cumbersome knee brace and a broken thumb last season. Sixteen games from both starters would put this team right back in the playoff hunt.

We believe in Arizona's ability to deal with change -- especially on defense. Coordinator Todd Bowles left to take over the Jets, leaving untested James Bettcher -- just 37 -- to assume play-calling duties. Bowles is a talent, but here's our prediction: Bettcher will be a gem, even with the loss of cornerback Antonio Cromartie and linemen Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams. "It's easy to recognize shooting stars," coach Bruce Arians said of Bettcher. "I know he can coach."

Biggest Concern

The question for me is whether Arizona's line can keep Palmer upright. It's silly to draw conclusions from preseason fare, but the Cardinals' front five was overwhelmed for much of August and remains a concern going forward. Palmer's ceiling is wildly diminished in a collapsing pocket. "There were some things in the last two preseason games that were alarming," general manager Steve Keim said, per The Arizona Republic. "I'm not going to sugarcoat things."

The Cardinals went 11-5 last season despite outscoring their opponents by just 11 points all year. That charts back to losing your starting quarterback, but Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders ranked the Cardinals as the "strongest candidate to decline in 2015." A brutal schedule inside the division and against the AFC North doesn't help. The team has consistently played above its own roster talent, though, which we attribute to Arians. This season will test one of our favorite coaches.

Training camp surprise

The team's official website noted that "no one has really been able to cover" rookie running back David Johnson out of the backfield. He looked strong again in Arizona's preseason tilt against the Chargers. I can't buy into Andre Ellington as a between-the-tackles workhorse, while Chris Johnson's better days are past. Ideally, David Johnson can help turn this backfield into a Jeremy Hill-Giovani Bernard arrangement with Ellington operating more exclusively in space.

What we'll be saying in February

Arians pulled off his finest coaching job yet in guiding a less-than-stellar Cardinals squad back to the NFC playoffs.

Predicted finish: No. 2 in NFC West, No. 5 (tied) in the NFC, No. 11 (tied) overall in Around The NFL's Power Poll

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