By Sam McPherson

The Arizona Cardinals were on a good track last year until starting quarterback Carson Palmer was lost for the season to a knee injury. Then, the same fate befell backup QB Drew Stanton. Suddenly, the Cardinals limped into the postseason with a third-string QB and were eliminated in the first round.

READ MORE: Tokayana Fire In Colfax Burns Through Vegetation and One Dog House

Things are different in 2015: Palmer is healthy and thriving, perhaps playing the best ball of his career. The Cardinals have a three-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West Division, and they are perhaps the best team in the conference this year.

Season Record

Arizona is 8-2, which is the second-best record in the NFC. The Cardinals already beat the 49ers once this season, 47-7, in Glendale, AZ. Arizona also has wins over the Seahawks and the Cincinnati Bengals. Yes, some of the Cardinals wins have been over bad teams like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore.

However, it’s hard to question any team led by two-time NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians. Arizona is second in scoring offense and 13th in scoring defense. The Cards have an excellent blend of youth and experience on their talented roster. They have to be considered the NFC favorite for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in February 2016.

Cardinals on Offense

Palmer’s health has been great this year, and the Arizona offense has been rolling. His 108.6 QB rating is the best of his career, and Palmer leads the NFL currently with 27 touchdown passes and a 9.0 yards-per-attempt mark. He’s hard to stop, especially when the running game is going well.

Chris Johnson gets most of the carries, as he has revitalized his career in Arizona. But rookie David Johnson is pretty good, too, when he gets the ball. Throw in a talented wide-receiver corps, led by All-World Larry Fitzgerald, and it’s pretty difficult to defend this offense unless it coughs up the ball three or four times in a game.

READ MORE: Grand Jury Indicts San Joaquin County Correctional Officer On Sexual Assault Charges

Cardinals on Defense

Cornerback Patrick Peterson is healthy again and very capable of shutting down any offense’s best WR. Safety Tyrann Mathieu is a ball hawk in the secondary. Eleven different players on this defense have at least one sack this season. It’s not a dominant defense, but it has the ability to look like one against a bad offense like the San Francisco unit.

In Week 3, Arizona held the 49ers to just 156 total yards, including just 53 through the air. San Francisco should be able to do better than that this Sunday with Blaine Gabbert at QB, but it’s worth remembering nonetheless.

Cardinals Players to Watch

Palmer and Peterson made this team work: Both had health problems last year, and both are 100 percent this year. That’s been a huge difference in the team’s performance and demeanor. If Palmer is hitting his targets too easily, it’s going to be a long day for the 49ers defense. If Peterson is eliminating 49ers WR Anquan Boldin from the game, it’s going to be tough goings for the S.F. offense.

Outlook

It would be a major upset for the 49ers to reverse that 47-7 result from Week 3, even with the QB change, etc. The San Francisco roster has taken a lot of injury hits since then, while the Cardinals still are flying high. Don’t expect Arizona to win by 40 points again, but the Cardinals should cruise to a relatively easy double-digit win at Levi’s Stadium as they scout the field for a potential Super Bowl return.

MORE NEWS: Sheriff: 1 Dead After Plane Crash Along Shore Of Clear Lake

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.