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Cardinals vs. Cowboys preview

IRVING, Texas – Few would have pegged Sunday’s meeting between the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals as so important in terms of the NFC hierarchy.

The Cardinals (6-1) have the best record in the conference and lead the NFC West. The Cowboys' winning streak ended Monday, but their 6-2 record has them in first place in the NFC East.

These former division rivals have played some zany games, with two of the past three meetings going to overtime and the other decided, in part, because of a missed extra point.

ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer offer up this week’s game preview:

Todd Archer: A lot of people are waiting for Tony Romo to falter after his strong start, aided by a great running game, and I think a lot of people are waiting for the same from Carson Palmer. Why is this a different Palmer and is it as simple as Bruce Arians keeping it all together?

Josh Weinfuss: I think the Carson Palmer you see now is partly the result of him being more mature and more comfortable with his lot in football, as well as the Bruce Arians effect. Palmer fits Arians’ scheme perfectly and Arians has tailored his play calling to what Palmer does well. And Palmer also has a talented corps of receivers, a fast back in Andre Ellington, brutish tight ends who can block and get out for a pass here and there, and an offensive line that has done a great job at keeping him clean -- not necessarily pressure-free, but clean -- and combined, that’s helped Palmer play the best he has in years.

How will coming off a short week and now coming off a loss impact the Cowboys after what looked like to be a pretty physical game?

Archer: It’s all about Romo. He missed two series in the second half against the Redskins because of a bruised back and was limited in practice. This is a tough matchup anyway, but it’s even tougher on a short week. Romo's injury wasn’t the only one. Justin Durant is out for the year with a torn biceps and Ronald Leary suffered a groin injury. Jason Garrett does a good job of getting his team to move on from the good or bad, but this test could be different because of Romo’s health. He was held out of the offseason because of back surgery last December and did not practice more than two straight days in training camp. He has taken Wednesdays off since the second game of the season to make sure he would be ready for game day, so his schedule has not been thrown too far out of whack, but the Cowboys have to make sure the issues they had against the Redskins’ pressure were more about a bad night than something that will expose them for the rest of the season.

Todd Bowles was a secondary coach here under Bill Parcells and has been a head coach candidate for several jobs. What has he brought to the Cardinals' defense, other than having some really good players to work with?

Weinfuss: Bowles hasn’t won so much with his players as much as his scheme. He’s playing with just two of his front seven from last season -- and that number was one for the past couple of weeks while Calais Campbell was out -- so while players help, it’s what Bowles has been able to do from a schematic standpoint that has been the deciding factor. But if I had to choose one thing that Bowles brought to the Cardinals, I’d go with a No. 1 and No. 1A. No. 1 was a slight change to the previous 3-4 scheme Arizona ran, and that was getting rid of the multiple-gap responsibility. This is now a single-gap scheme, and guys love it. And No. 1A is pressure. Bowles loves to blitz, as was clear on the last drive against the Philadelphia Eagles. It has been working so far.

Last season, Bruce Arians was adamant about not putting too much responsibility in the run game on Andre Ellington, in large part because he didn’t want him to wear down in his first season. Granted, DeMarco Murray is at a different stage of his career, but he’s still a running back getting significant carries. How much of a concern is it that the Cowboys are riding him too much?

Archer: There’s some concern about it, and they have rested him at different times for a series or a few plays in the first half of the past three games, but he is their bell cow. He is their guy. They will be mindful of how much work he gets, but he’s too good to take off the field for extended spells. They like backup running backs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar, but those guys can’t do what Murray does in the run and pass game. He doesn’t look like he’s wearing down. He had 19 carries for 141 yards against the Redskins, so his carries were down from what they had been. But I’d maintain he took more of a beating in that game than he did when he had 29 carries in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans. Jason Garrett was around Emmitt Smith for the bulk of his career, so I think he has a watchful eye to this sort of thing, as does Scott Linehan, who was around Steven Jackson in St. Louis. They will be smart with Murray, but not to the point that it costs them games.

I know Larry Fitzgerald. I know Michael Floyd. I didn’t know I needed to know John Brown, too. Has he changed the dynamic of the Cardinals’ offense any?

Weinfuss: He has, and it’s been a lot more than people realize. With Brown, Arizona added a reliable speed option. Palmer and Brown developed a great rapport while working together in Southern California this offseason and it’s just translated onto the field. While Fitzgerald has shown he can make a tough catch in traffic and break free for 80 yards and Floyd can go up and over anyone who challenges him, it’s Brown who can take the top off the defense. He has started showing up more and more on opposing game plans over the last few weeks, but after his game-winning touchdown catch Sunday, I’m sure he’ll be a point of emphasis going forward, which will spread secondaries thin and open up the middle and underneath for the rest of the Cardinals’ receivers.

There’s a lot of hype here, at least, surrounding the Cardinals’ run defense, which dropped from first to third this week. How much of Sunday’s game will come down to the league’s No. 1 rushing offense versus the league’s No. 1 rushing defense? Do you think the passing games will get any credit?

Archer: We talked about Romo’s back injury earlier and that could affect how the Cowboys plan to attack Arizona. I can’t imagine they will come out and chuck it 50 times and leave Romo exposed like that. The Cowboys are a run-first team, so if they’re playing the top run defense or the worst, they will attack the way they have attacked all season. They always say, "It's about us." Well, the Cardinals offer a great challenge to the running game. Teams have been committing eight guys at the line to slow Murray, and they haven’t been able to do it for four quarters. There have been some games that have been more difficult than others, but the Cowboys eventually figure things out and get to the runs that produce big plays. Then they work the pass game off the run game. They are trying to emulate the formula that worked so well in the 1990s. It has worked better than anybody really could have imagined at the start of the season.