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Carson Palmer Makes Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl Favorites

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2015

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer greets fans as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Seattle. The Cardinals beat the Seahawks 39-32. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Entering Week 10 of the regular season, the NFL had three undefeated teams. Although two remain, there still isn't a clear favorite for the Super Bowl.

The New England Patriots started the season hotter than anyone but have since cooled off while suffering significant injuries on the offensive side of the ball. The Carolina Panthers are the other remaining unbeaten, but they won't escape skepticism so long as their receiving options remain so limited.

Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals weren't one of the last remaining unbeaten teamsthey lost first in Week 4but they do have one of the best records in the league. The Cardinals are 7-2 after an impressive road victory over the Seattle Seahawks last week.

What stood out most from that game was the play of starting quarterback Carson Palmer.

Palmer had negative playsmost notably a pair of fumbles that brought the Seahawks back into the game during the second half. However, their significance was diminished by the overall quality of his play.

He completed 60.4 percent of his passes while throwing 48 times for 363 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Those numbers are impressive, but they didn't do his performance justice. Palmer was facing a defense that played phenomenally well. It was consistently winning matchups on the defensive line while playing tight, smart coverage on the back end.

Pete Carroll's defense put Palmer in a position that forced him to consistently attempt difficult plays. He wasn't getting high percentage throws or tons of yards after the catch, but he kept the offense moving.

When Pro Football Focus named Palmer as its midseason All-Pro quarterback, the reaction was predictably negative. This display against the Seahawks highlighted why it made that decision. Palmer has been playing phenomenal football all season long, and with a strong roster around him the Cardinals should be considered Super Bowl favorites if he continues to play this way.

Palmer is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL. He understands coverages and feels pressure as well as anyone in the league. Against the Seahawks, his pass protection regularly broke down quickly. This put him in a position where he needed to do a variety of things just to get rid of the ball.

In Arians' offense, Palmer isn't just throwing the ball to short routes or relying on screens. He has to push the ball downfield, which requires time in the pocket and/or precision on downfield throws.

Negating pressure is much easier if you are making quicker throws or throwing to receivers who are schemed open. Pushing the ball downfield under pressure against tight coverage is the most difficult thing a quarterback can be asked to do.

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On this play, Palmer takes a deep drop from under center before turning around to view the coverage downfield. He has no quick option or receiver open downfield, so Palmer has to hold the ball. The problem with holding the ball is he has multiple pass-rushers penetrating the pocket in front of him.

Interior pressure is typically the most disruptive for a quarterback, but Palmer isn't flustered.

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Palmer recognizes the incoming pressure and waits for a moment before shifting his weight to escape into the right flat. He timed his escape so that neither defender could redirect against their blockers to pursue him into the space outside.

Despite being asked to move from his spot, Palmer keeps his eyes downfield and is always contorted in such a way that he can throw the ball if he needs to.

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Having extended the play, Palmer delivers a perfect pass to Michael Floyd down the sideline despite being on the move with a defender arriving. Palmer is flattened by the hit but he never flinched in his throwing motion so it didn't affect the throw.

Floyd was only able to get open against Richard Sherman because Palmer bought him more time to work through his route.

This play came early in the first quarter. It gained Arizona 10 yards and a first down. Although it wasn't an easy play, it was one of the easier ones that Palmer was tasked with making in this game. A few plays later, Palmer was forced to make a more difficult play in the pocket.

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It's 3rd-and-8 so the Seahawks can be aggressive with their play call. The Cardinals don't mask their intentions. They spread the field with five receivers and leave only five blockers in position to protect Palmer.

The Seahawks blitz from the left side, sending an unblocked defender after Palmer while the quarterback has no open receivers to get rid of the ball.

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Palmer is 35 years old and coming off of the second ACL tear of his career. Despite that, he is still a comfortable mover with a stocky build that allows him to brush off contact. His 6'5", 235-pound frame helps him break the tackle attempt of the free defender on this occasion.

From the moment he got the ball to the moment he released it, Palmer never dropped his eyes from the coverage.

Not dropping his eyes to the pressure around him meant that he could locate Larry Fitzgerald running a shallow crossing route. Palmer was able to flick the ball into Fitzgerald's hands so he could catch the ball on the move and continue toward space by the sideline.

This play wasn't a deep throw, but it gained 15 yards and a first down because of Palmer's movement in the pocket and his comfort keeping his eyes downfield.

Palmer can make decisive moves that see him step up through the pocket or escape into either flat, but he also makes very subtle movements with both his upper body and his feet to work within the pocket. His technical discipline is flawless to not let this kind of pressure disrupt the design of plays.

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On this play, Palmer never takes his eyes away from the middle of the field so he can't see the incoming defender from the right side. The quarterback has to sense the pressure, which he does at the last moment. It's at that point when he dips his shoulder to avoid the contact.

As he dips his shoulder he steps forward so that he is in a pocket of space where he can release the ball comfortably.

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Palmer was consistently getting pressured from his right side. It put him under pressure to step up in the pocket or adjust in his established position. On this play, he shows off precise, balanced footwork to move from the first, to the second, to the third level of the pocket.

For a player with multiple ACL tears in his past, especially one in the 35th year of his existence, this kind of movement is surprisingly nimble.

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Having stepped up in the pocket to avoid a sack, Palmer unleashed one of the most impressive deep passes you will see to Floyd. Floyd caught the ball with three defenders around him after running a deep crossing route from the other side of the field.

Floyd gained 42 yards on the play, but it was negated by an illegal formation penalty. An illegal formation that didn't make Palmer's job any easier.

Having the ability to avoid pressure is hugely valuable, but every quarterback is inevitably put in position to throw against pressure. Palmer's strong arm, high release and composure allows him to be accurate while throwing from different platforms or with pressure in his face.

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On this play, Michael Bennett beats Jonathan Cooper almost immediately after the snap. He is in the backfield instantly and bearing down on the quarterback. Palmer never drops his eyes and doesn't lose discipline in his mechanics even though he knows he is about to be hit.

He is able to find Jermaine Gresham with an accurate pass in a tight window downfield for a first down.

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Bennett was a constant problem for the right side of the Cardinals offensive line. On this play, he uses his strength to knock Cooper backwards. Palmer is taking a short drop and getting rid of the ball quickly, but he can't get rid of it before Cooper lands in his lap.

Palmer has to release the ball with an unstable foundation, while Bennett's extended arm acts as an obstacle he has to throw over.

Despite the quick pressure from the defensive lineman, Palmer's pass is perfect to Fitzgerald for a first down. Fitzgerald was running up the seam and turned infield. When he turned infield, the ball was there waiting for him because Palmer was able to throw accurately with anticipation despite the unclean pocket.

Most quarterbacks couldn't make the throws that Palmer is making from perfectly clean pockets. Even those starting in the NFL would struggle to do it in 7-on-7 drills. That is what makes this team different from any other.

Obviously Cam Newton and Tom Brady are extremely difficult to defend against, but Palmer playing this way is impossible to stop unless you abandon any sense of reality. 

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Pressure doesn't intimidate him.

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Coverage doesn't discourage him.

Right now, the only way to stop Palmer is for Palmer's own play to decline. Whether Palmer can sustain this level of play for the remainder of the season is unclear, but to this point he has played at least close to this level in the majority of his games.

With outstanding receivers around himJohn Brown, Fitzgerald and Floydas well as a reliable running game, the Cardinals have one of the best offenses in the NFL. They rank second in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, and are scoring 33.6 points per game and racking up 421.1 yards per game.

Palmer is the ideal quarterback for Arians' offense and the quarterback himself attributes much of the team's success to the attitude of the head coach, via Darren Urban of azcardinals.com:

“We’re a resilient group,” Palmer said. “It trickles down from the head coach. I think good teams and really good teamshopefully great teamstake on their coach’s mentality. I think that’s what B.A. brings and we’ve figured out how to let that trickle down to our minds by the way we work, by the way we prepare to play and ultimately, the way we play.”

Recent history tells us that the NFC is the tougher conference to come out of. Obviously the Panthers are a major obstacle for the Cardinals to overcome, but so are the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and potentially the Atlanta Falcons or St. Louis Rams

The NFC East has struggled to this point, but the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have enough talent to become contenders over the second half of the season, while the Dallas Cowboys could make a run with a healthy Tony Romo back under center.

The NFL is unpredictable. It's designed to be that way and typically plays out that way. At this very moment, the Cardinals should be the most confident of any team in the league though. There are many reasons for that, but the biggest one wears No. 3 on his back.

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