Falcons face Cardinals, believe best to come after bye week

ATLANTA (AP) After a week off, the Atlanta Falcons feel their best is yet to come.

They're leading the NFC South, some injured players are healing, and the schedule looks mighty favorable the rest of the way.

The Falcons (6-4) host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday - the first of four homes games over the final six weeks of the regular season.

''You hope to be playing your best football,'' coach Dan Quinn said. ''If you're really putting the work in through practice, you're going to keep getting better. If you keep getting better down the stretch, that leads to better things.''

Running back Tevin Coleman insists he'll be ready to go after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. When healthy, he teamed with Devonta Freeman to give the Falcons a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield.

''I'm real excited to be back,'' Coleman said. ''You're going to see a show.''

The Cardinals (4-5-1) have slipped three games behind Seattle in the NFC West, and they've got to finish strong to have any shot at a wild card.

It's a far cry from where this team started out.

After reaching the NFC championship game last season, Arizona was a trendy pick to go all the way. The Cardinals certainly didn't shy away from expectations, making it clear they expected to finally win the franchise's first Super Bowl title.

Now, those goals seem laughable.

As if the disappointment on the field wasn't enough, coach Bruce Arians became ill and was briefly hospitalized after last week's loss at Minnesota. He's back with the team and plans to coach against the Falcons.

''More relief than anything,'' Arians said. ''It was a scare.''

Some things to watch for Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

BEYOND JULIO: Julio Jones is always the primary target in the Atlanta passing game, but he often faces double- and even triple-coverage. When that's the case, quarterback Matt Ryan has been more than willing to go to his other options. Seven other players have at least 10 catches, including Mohamed Sanu with 39 and Freeman with 31. Jones, of course, leads the way with 61 receptions for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. But he's actually far behind his pace from last season, when he had one of the greatest receiving years in NFL history with 136 catches for 1,871 yards.

JOHNSON'S IMPACT: The Cardinals have a number of problems. David Johnson is not one of them. A third-round pick out of Northern Iowa in 2015, the running back has scored more touchdowns in the past two seasons (25) than any other player in the NFL. Johnson was running neck-and-neck with Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott for the NFL lead in yards from scrimmage. Elliott leads with 1,502 after Thursday's game, ahead of Johnson's 1,373. He scored twice against Minnesota - once on a run, another when hauling in a pass.

PUMMELING PALMER: Carson Palmer took some brutal hits against the Vikings as the injury depleted offensive line again showed its inexperience. John Wetzel, who took over at left tackle when Jared Veldheer went down for the season with a torn triceps, had never even played in an NFL game before this season, bouncing around on several practice squads. Likewise, Earl Watford also didn't have much experience when he took over for injured Evan Mathis at right guard. Palmer was hit 15 times against the Vikings, four of them resulting in sacks.

BEASLEY'S RISE: Outside linebacker Vic Beasley is thriving in his second season with the Falcons. Giving the team the sort of pass rush that has long been a major weakness, Beasley already has 9.5 sacks - putting him near the top of the league and more than doubling the output from his rookie season. This is the most sacks by an Atlanta player since John Abraham has 10 in 2012, and Beasley still has six more games to add to his total. Look for him to take advantage of Arizona's problems up front.

BRYANT'S MISSES: Atlanta's Matt Bryant has long been one of the NFL's most accurate kickers, but he's coming off a tough game against the Eagles. The 41-year-old missed just his second field goal try of the season, though it should be noted both have been from beyond 50 yards. The bigger shock was botching an extra point for the first time since 2008. Even with the longer PAT put in by the league a year ago, Bryant had been automatic until he sent one wide of the upright in a 24-15 loss at Philadelphia. He's a huge weapon for the Falcons' high-scoring offense, so they don't need this to become a habit.

---

AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this report.

---

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

---

For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.