When Carson Palmer was carted off his home field last November after suffering a season-ending knee injury against the St. Louis Rams, he expected to be back healthy and preferably still the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals.
Preparing to face the Rams for the first time since that injury, Palmer has accomplished both tasks and will try to lead the Cardinals to their second 4-0 start in four seasons Sunday.
Palmer tore his ACL during a 31-14 win over St. Louis on Nov. 9, but he never thought his career was finished.
"I'm going to play football again," he said a day after being injured while trying to avoid a sack by the Rams' Mark Barron.
Palmer, who turns 36 in December, has done just that - and perhaps better than ever while guiding the NFL's highest-scoring team. A winner of nine straight starts, Palmer has thrown for 803 yards with nine TDs, two interceptions and been sacked once for a team that's 3-0 for the second straight season.
"It brings us to the realization (that Palmer) is a special player," guard Jonathan Cooper told the Cardinals' official website.
Palmer and the offense have been responsible for 13 of Arizona's 17 touchdowns that are tied for third-most in NFL history through three games and the most since Dallas had 18 in 1968. The Cardinals also have returned three interceptions for touchdowns, taken a kickoff back for a TD and recorded one safety en route to a league-high 126 points.
With a 48-23 win at Chicago in Week 2 and last Sunday's 47-7 rout of San Francisco, they've posted back-to-back 40-point games for the first time since 1969. Arizona has never done it in three straight, but coach Bruce Arians doesn't want that to be the focus as his team tries to go 4-0 for the first time since 2012.
"I think the best thing our players do right now is they go day to day," he said. "They let everybody talk about all that other crap, December and January and all the stats, but we just go to work each day. And if we can stay that way, we'll be all right."
Palmer has benefited from a resurgent Larry Fitzgerald, who has 23 receptions and a league-leading five touchdown catches. He caught 63 passes and had a career-low two TDs in 14 games last season.
With Andre Ellington working his way back from a knee injury, Chris Johnson is likely to remain the featured back after rushing for 110 yards and two scores on 22 carries against the 49ers.
Arizona has won three straight over St. Louis (1-2) and scored at least 30 points in the first two of those games with Palmer under center. In the most recent meeting without him, the Cardinals held on for a 12-6 victory Dec. 11. In Palmer's last three against the Rams, Fitzgerald has 29 catches for 288 yards and three TDs.
Though St. Louis held Pittsburgh to 259 yards and knocked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of last week's game, they fell 12-6 for a second consecutive defeat.
"We're 1-2, but we've not made enough plays defensively to win games," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We need to learn to win games on defense."
Mostly because the Rams have scored one touchdown, recorded 471 total yards and gone 4 for 22 on third down while totaling 16 points in the last two contests. St. Louis' four offensive touchdowns are tied for the fewest in the league.
"Sometimes there's growing pains," said quarterback Nick Foles, who has thrown two TDs. "We can't get down on it."
Tenth overall pick Todd Gurley managed nine yards on six carries in his NFL debut last Sunday, but is expected to see an increased workload this week.
"I felt like I still have the explosiveness," said Gurley, who is back from a knee injury suffered last season at Georgia. "Definitely didn't get to show it (last weekend)."
That doesn't mean things will get any better for the rookie against an Arizona defense that held New Orleans' Mark Ingram, Chicago's Matt Forte and Carlos Hyde of San Francisco to an average of 3.5 yards per carry while they combined for 136 in the first three games.
"It's early in the season ... the world's not ending," Foles said. "They want to get better and that's what I see. My goal is to keep grinding forward and by the end of the year we'll be where we want to be."