September 09, 2015

With a healthy Carson Palmer back to run the offense, the Arizona Cardinals believe they have the talent to contend for the Super Bowl.

The New Orleans Saints parted ways with several key contributors during a major roster overhaul, but the playoffs are certainly not out of the question given the division where they reside.

One of the most highly anticipated seasons in the desert begins Sunday when Palmer and the Cardinals host Drew Brees and the new-look Saints.

The 2014 season looked like it was going to be a special one for the Cardinals after they jumped out to an 8-1 start, but any Super Bowl aspirations seemed to vanish when Palmer suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 10. They limped to an 11-5 finish with backup quarterback Drew Stanton going down in Week 15, forcing Ryan Lindley into action. They still made the playoffs but gained 78 total yards - their fewest in 60 years - in a 27-16 loss to Carolina in a wild-card game.

The offense averaged 359.8 yards in the six starts Palmer made with the Cardinals going 6-0. He averaged 271.0 passing yards, throwing 11 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 95.6 rating.

Palmer's knee is at full strength, and after rehabbing a shoulder injury which also sidelined him last year, the 35-year-old declared his arm is "as strong as it's ever been, maybe stronger."

A healthy Palmer is just one of the reasons the Cardinals have lofty expectations.

Larry Fitzgerald (63 catches for 784 yards in 2014), John Brown (48 for 696), Michael Floyd (47 for 841) and fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson make up a deep wide receiver corps.

Floyd has returned to practice after being out with dislocated fingers, and safety Tyrann Mathieu - among many promising players on defense - got through the preseason healthy after being bothered by knee and thumb problems in 2014.

"We're as talented as anybody in this league," Palmer said. "I think if you're to put our roster up against anybody's roster and just kind of look at all the intangibles of each guy and the backups, I would put our roster up against everybody."

Their roster certainly looks more impressive than New Orleans'.

After finishing 7-9 to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Saints traded away Brees' top target from each of the past four seasons in tight end Jimmy Graham and released top pass rusher Junior Galette. The troubled linebacker recorded 22 sacks in the past two seasons, but his off-the-field behavior was deemed detrimental to the team.

New Orleans also parted with versatile running back Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills, who led all Saints receivers with 63 catches for 931 yards, as well as linebacker Curtis Lofton, who had a team-high 125 tackles.

Brees isn't going to let all the turnover be an excuse for missing the playoffs, though, especially considering the Saints play in an NFC South division that Carolina won last season with a 7-8-1 record.

"You have to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable," said Brees, who is four TD passes away from becoming the fourth QB with 400. "It is that idea that there is always something to prove. ... You are always fighting to get better."

Brees, who tied for the NFL lead in yards passing with 4,952 last year, still has a few weapons at his disposal with the return of 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks (53 catches for 550 yards) and longtime teammate Marques Colston (59 for 902). Mark Ingram ran for a career-best 964 yards in just 13 games a year ago and will be backed up by C.J. Spiller, who came over from Buffalo.

There are significantly more questions for a defense that ranked 31st in total yards (384.0 per game) and 28th in scoring (26.5 per game).

First-round pick Stephone Anthony and second-rounder Hau'oli Kikaha are both expected to see plenty of time at linebacker, and New Orleans native Delvin Breaux will make his NFL debut at cornerback after coming over from the CFL.

"They'll be a handful of guys playing in their first pro football game this weekend and I am excited to see how they do," coach Sean Payton said. "There will be some growing pains."

Led by three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, Arizona is in much better shape defensively.

The Cardinals were fifth in the league in scoring defense last season at 18.7 points per game and tied for seventh with 18 interceptions.

Outside linebacker Alex Okafor had a team-high eight sacks and will line up opposite newcomer LaMarr Woodley for defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who takes over after Todd Bowles moved on to coach the New York Jets.

"It is an aggressive defense with a lot of different pressure packages," Payton said. "They're fast and I'd say that they do a lot of things and a lot things well."

One of the biggest concerns for the Cardinals this offseason was a ground game that ranked 31st with 1,308 yards and last with 3.3 per carry. They've upgraded the backfield by signing Chris Johnson and drafting David Johnson out of Northern Iowa in the third round to join Andre Ellington, who rushed for a team-high 660 yards while being slowed by a torn tendon in his foot.

"This is the best football team we've had," reigning NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians said.

The Cardinals have lost three of the last four meetings with the Saints, including a defeat in a 2010 divisional playoff game, with Brees throwing for 1,183 yards and 10 touchdowns.

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