The Carolina Panthers own the NFL's best record, but Thursday Night Football will give fans another look at the league's most complete team.
Winners of six straight, the Arizona Cardinals (10-2) deserve to be recognized for what they are: The most fun team to watch in the NFL.
It starts at the top with coach Bruce Arians, who along with general manager Steve Keim has built a club with talent to burn on both sides of the ball. Carson Palmer is a legitimate MVP candidate, Tyrann Mathieu deserves votes for Defensive Player of the Year and Arians sits near the top of Chris Wesseling's Coach of the Year rankings, an award he's already won twice over the past three years.
Sitting three games ahead of the Seahawks, the Cardinals still have plenty to play for. Arizona can clinch the NFC West with a win Thursday coupled with a Seattle loss or tie on Sunday. A victory alone would ensure a playoff spot for the Cards, but they aren't the only squad chasing postseason glory.
Tied atop the NFC North with Green Bay, Minnesota (8-4) is under plenty of pressure to produce a win in the desert. Here's what we'll be watching for:
- Notched as the fifth seed in the NFC, the Vikings are on the hot seat to prove their doubters wrong. The knock on Minnesota is simple: They wax the weak and crumble against the strong.
"Yeah, we're not quite as good as what we think we are," coach Mike Zimmer said after last week's implosion against the 'Hawks. "Especially if we don't play the way we're capable of playing, we're definitely not as good as what we think we are."
The banged-up Vikings looked lost on Sunday as Seattle rolled to a 38-7 win, marking Minnesota's second ugly showing in three weeks after Green Bay dropped them, 30-13, in Week 11. After thriving against a soft early season schedule, the Vikings face the NFL's fifth-toughest slate down the stretch. With the fading Falcons and frisky Bucs hanging around in the NFC playoff picture, Minnesota can't afford to slip up in remaining games against the Bears, Giants and Packers.
- The health of Minnesota's defense is a major concern: Big-bodied tackle Linval Joseph (foot), linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and safety Harrison Smith (knee/hamstring) and linebacker Brandon Watts (rib) have been ruled out against Arizona. With safety Robert Blanton (knee) also ailing, Minnesota's primary strength -- its top-five scoring defense -- is compromised.
- Besides, healthier teams have struggled against the Cardinals. The Seahawks gave up 39 points to Arizona in Week 10 before the Bengals allowed 34 the following Sunday. We don't think much of the Rams, but St. Louis -- a talented defensive squad -- couldn't stop Palmer and friends from rolling up another 27 points in Week 13. It's a matter of resources, because Arizona forces teams to pick their poison. If opponents put their best cornerback on Larry Fitzgerald, fellow wideouts John Brown and Michael Floyd are bound to fry No. 2 and No. 3 cover men. Rookie J.J. Nelson has emerged as a playmaker, too, with eight catches for a whopping 229 yards over the past three weeks. Stopping the entire crew is impossible, one reason the Cardinals boast a league-leading offense that ranks above all others in points per game (31.8), total yards per game (419.5), passing yards per play (8.49), third-down conversions (46.3), plays of 20-plus yards (65) and point differential (+150).
- It's not just the air attack, either. These Cardinals can hurt you on the ground. After watching the injured Chris Johnson fizzle out in November, Arians has gone back to David Johnson, who on Sunday joined Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only two rookies in NFL history with four-plus rushing touchdowns, four-plus receiving touchdowns and a kick-return score. With 24 touches last week, Johnson received praise from Arians as the team's "bell-cow" who should get just as many opportunities against the Vikings. Said Arians: "He's going to be a heck of a player."
- So, if the Cardinals get it done on offense, how will the Vikings keep up? Minnesota isn't built for a shootout, with second-year passer Teddy Bridgewater throwing just eight touchdowns to eight picks on the year. The Vikings need a big game from Adrian Peterson, whose 18 yards off eight carries last Sunday marked the third-fewest yards of his career. Peterson historically bounces back, though, averaging 105 yards per game in weeks after a sub-50-yard performance. The Cardinals won't make that an easy feat, though, after allowing just one 100-yard rusher (Todd Gurley) all season.
- Another note on Bridgewater: In 24 career starts, he's never defeated a top-five defense. Only Colin Kaepernick (179.4) and Nick Foles (186.5) have fewer yards per game than Bridgewater (199.8 YPG), but that has plenty to do with a run-heavy scheme based around A.P. Teddy's 2.9 career touchdown percentage also ranks 38th of 39 qualifiers since 2014, but the numbers alone discount Bridgewater's growth: He's solidified a position of need for a team that suffered for years with Christian Ponder under center. It doesn't help that Minnesota has allowed 35 sacks, seventh most league-wide. The pass protection is an issue, but chasing the quarterback isn't Arizona's strength.
- We've been saying this for months, but Mathieu is playing as well as any defensive back in the NFL. He's insanely versatile and helps Arizona in ways that don't show up in the box score. Ranking as the league's top cover man, per Pro Football Focus, Honey Badger might be the best run-stuffing defensive back in the NFL. He also leads all cornerbacks with a combined eight quarterback sacks, hits and hurries, while Minnesota's Captain Munnerlyn ranks second with seven. Some of Mathieu's finest moments have come in prime time, so get ready for a fun showdown on NFL Network.