People expected the Houston Texans to be good this season, but instead they've stumbled toward the top of the draft standings instead of the AFC standings. Nobody expected the Arizona Cardinals to compete in a tough NFC West division, but instead it looks like they could be pushing for the final Wild Card berth.
Yes, these are two teams headed in opposite directions, doing the opposite of what we expected. And they will meet on Sunday in Arizona with an unlikely favorite trying to move above .500 in the second half of a season for the first time since 2009.
Meet the Cardinals
Arizona hasn't finished a season above .500 since going 10-6 four years ago, Kurt Warner's last season in the NFL. In the three years following that season, they started no fewer than three quarterbacks per year, with Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Richard Bartel, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer all attempting passes for the Cardinals in a three-year span.
They hoped to finally put that to rest by acquiring Carson Palmer in the offseason, but even he has had his struggles this year. Luckily for Arizona, with this defense, they don't need much.
The Cardinals are 4-4 at the midway point thanks to a defense that advanced stats website Football Outsiders ranks first in the NFL by their DVOA measure. With stars like Daryl Washington, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, plus NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Tyrann Mathieu, the Cards are tough against both the pass and the run.
If Palmer can just run an average offense, and avoid turnovers unlike he has, with 14 interceptions in eight games, then Arizona could be headed back to the playoffs for the first time since the Warner era. If he doesn't, they might have to dip right back into the veteran quarterback pool and hope to get lucky.
Meet the Texans
The Houston Texans are a team that might have to start looking for a new quarterback soon, too. That is, unless Case Keenum has anything to say about it.
After only two games, Keenum might already be reminding local fans of another undrafted free agent that once took Texas by storm. Namely, the Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo. After growing tired of seeing Matt Schaub throw crucial interceptions at the end of games and giving away points on turnovers, Gary Kubiak finally turned to the young Keenum after it was apparent that backup T.J. Yates was also not cutting it.
In two starts against the Chiefs and Colts, no slouches on defense, Keenum has thrown for 621 yards, four touchdowns and, most importantly, zero interceptions. He'll be facing perhaps his toughest test yet on Sunday against Arizona, does he have a third great game in him?
Local Takes: Arizona Cardinals
Alex Mann at Revenge of the Birds breaks down the first-half grades for each position group. No surprises on where their strengths lie:
Linebackers: A- Key losses especially on the outside to Acho and Alexander early on, the unit has held up well. Zero production from second-round pick Kevin Minter is disappointing, but the revival of Karlos Dansby playing at an All-Pro level, and Daryl Washington being the stud he is, have created a formidable duo.
Local Takes: Houston Texans
A very important and serious bit of news for the Texans this week is that head coach Gary Kubiak is out of the hospital after collapsing in Houston's Week 9 game against the Colts. Battle Red Blog updated his status this week, noting that he will not be with the team against Arizona on Sunday:
This is VERY good news that he has been cleared to leave after two days of treatment and observation by some of the best medical professionals available in the world. Obviously they are continuing conservative next steps in keeping the coach home this week to fully recover from a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), more commonly called a "mini-stroke," which he suffered at half-time of the game against the Colts last Sunday night at Reliant Stadium.
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One interesting aspect of this game is the Arizona head coach Bruce Arians can relate to what the Texans are going through right now with Kubiak. Arians was put in the position of taking over for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano on an interim basis last season after Pagano was diagnosed with cancer and had to leave the team for treatment.
There should be no reason to believe that Houston won't play at their highest level when they travel to face the Cardinals on Sunday, but the biggest obstacle standing in their way is that Arizona defense. The best thing going for the Texans might actually be Palmer and whether or not he throws multiple interceptions to keep the game close.
That seems like a good bet, but still, the Cards should take care of business at home against an inexperienced quarterback.
ARI 21, HOU 18
Despite everything mentioned, the Cardinals are only favored by a single point according to OddsShark.com. Is that too low?
The 4-4 Cards have an excellent opportunity to move to 6-4 if they can beat the Texans on Sunday. Their next game will be in Week 11 at Jacksonville against the still-winless Jaguars.
Meanwhile, the Texans go back home to face the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, their first of three straight home games.