IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys were an interception away from the playoffs last year, and the Cardinals just missed the cut despite a 10-6 record.
Regardless of those two facts, I did not have this game circled as must-see TV when the Cowboys' schedule came out back in April. Six months later, here we are – the Cardinals have the NFC's best record, and the Cowboys are right behind them.
It's been more than a decade since these two were divisional rivals, and it's been nine years since they've played a game in Dallas – the teams' first-ever meeting at AT&T Stadium.
With that in mind, I asked Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com to help me preview Sunday's matchup.
1. All the talk in Dallas this week has focused on the Cardinals' tendency to blitz. What is it about Todd Bowles' scheme and the personnel that has made this such a viable strategy for Arizona?
From the personnel side, it's all but necessary given their losses starting with the summer. They let Karlos Dansby walk as a free agent thinking they could plug Kevin Minter in next to Daryl Washington at inside linebacker. But Washington got suspended for the season. Defensive end Darnell Dockett blew out his knee. Linebacker John Abraham was lost for the year with a concussion. Now outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy is on short-term injured reserve.
As the injuries piled up, it was clear the Cards were going to have to get creative on defense, especially to put pressure on the passer. There is no one dynamic edge rusher. But this is also Bowles' mentality. He wants to be aggressive, especially in late, high-tension situations. Be proactive, not reactive. Many times, the other side has flinched.
2. The Cardinals are 4-0 with Carson Palmer in the lineup and 2-1 when he hasn't played. What does his presence do for the Arizona offense?
Aside from the very basic he's-the-best-QB-they-have, Palmer is simply a leader. Maybe better than anyone has ever given him credit for. He won the offensive captaincy in a landslide, and he has a way about him that inspires confidence. Now, he's got to play that way on the field, and he has. He's thrown only one interception (the only one the Cards have thrown in seven games) and is making smart decisions. The offense still isn't playing as consistently as the Cards want, but it isn't making dumb mistakes either.
3. This game will feature a strength-on-strength matchup of the Cowboys' No. 1 run game against the Cardinals' No. 2 run defense. Who or what has enabled the Cardinals to plug up the run game, and what has to happen if they are to limit DeMarco Murray?
This is a good question. You would've thought their injuries would have cost them in this regard, but it hasn't. Again, much of the credit here has to go to Bowles and Arians. Bowles has earned a reputation among his players to almost be a soothsayer when it comes to dissecting the other team's offense, so the trust they have in him to make the right decisions couldn't be higher.
And the coaches have created a culture of believing that there will be no dropoff regardless of who is in the lineup. Yes, every single team has that 'next man up' philosophy, but most teams struggle to really believe in it. This team does. As far as Murray, we'll see. They'd like to have some control. They will, I'm sure, stack the box and force Romo to beat them.
But they also take a big picture view -- if Murray rushes for 100-plus yards but the Cards win, they couldn't care less. They won't get myopic in their gameplan.
4. There's plenty of hype about Dallas being out to its best start since 2007, but the Cardinals are off to their best start since 1974 – before they even moved to Arizona. What's the local feeling about this team so far?
Arians has definitely created an air of excitement. Things were good around their Super Bowl appearance and certainly, it hasn't reached that level. But this town is and always has been football-first as long as you give them a winner to support. Arians has done that. The team is working hard to not do anything but talk week-to-week -- but the fans certainly are well aware the Super Bowl is at University of Phoenix Stadium this season.
5. We know about Fitzgerald and Palmer and Peterson. Give us a more under-the-radar Cardinals player who you think could shine in this matchup.
I have two: On offense, running back Andre Ellington is who the offense orbits around. He's used as a wide receiver sometimes, just to up his touches. He's also really the only one in the run game. He's played well this season and can break loose at any moment. Defensively, veteran linebacker Larry Foote has been a godsend for a team shredded by the problems at linebacker. He's played every snap this season and is a leader that unit needed.