If anybody knows Carson Palmer's career body of work, it's Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Carroll coached Palmer at USC and saw him develop into a Heisman Trophy winner and eventual No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, he followed Palmer's NFL career from afar while still coaching at USC, then since coming to the NFL, he has coached against Palmer on multiple occasions.
So it's no small statement when Carroll says that Palmer, in his 13th season, playing on a twice-torn ACL six weeks shy of his 36th birthday, "looks the best he's ever been. I see him at his very best right now."
Not a lot of professional athletes peak at 35, especially those who enjoy success early in their career—Palmer earned Pro Bowl honors twice in his first three seasons as a starter—but the numbers back up what Carroll sees when he studies Palmer on film. Halfway through the season, Palmer, who leads the NFC West-leading Cardinals into CenturyLink Field for Sunday night's game at Seattle, is on pace to set career highs in passer rating, yards, touchdowns and average yards per attempt. Palmer's resurgence is a big reason why the Cardinals are 6-2, and why they are third in the league in total offense, second in scoring and fourth in passing yards.
"Carson is playing phenomenal football," Carroll said. "He looks as good as he's ever looked. He's in great command of the offense, he can throw every throw. They have a really nice setup for him with the receivers that they have. The running backs can catch the football. They come downhill with the running game to make you have to defend it, and then they fire the thing all over the field. They're as aggressive downfield as anybody we play, with players that can make things happen. Carson has just been great. The best I've ever seen him in all of the years he's been out there playing."
Palmer's return from last year's knee injury is one of the biggest reasons why the Cardinals expect this season to finish better than last year's, when Arizona lost a three-game lead to the Seahawks down the stretch using second- and third-string quarterbacks. As for his former coach's assessment of his play, Palmer said, "It feels good. You hope he says that on Monday morning obviously, but it's been a good start on the season for us. It's been a good start for myself, and just looking to keep that going."
Of course, Palmer isn't alone in leading the Cardinals to a big first half. Their aggressive, blitz-happy defense is third in yards allowed and seventh in scoring defense, and on offense, veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Chris Johnson are two more Cardinals 30-somethings having big years. Considering the playmakers Arizona has on the field and their aggressive head coach/offensive play-caller Bruce Arians, it's no surprise that the Cardinals are one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
"I think it's a different team because the quarterback is playing great," Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said. "They added the running back, they have aggression now. They have receiving targets and they also can run the ball."
Part of what should make Sunday's matchup such an intriguing one is that the Seahawks defense hangs its hat on stopping exactly what has made the Cardinals so dangerous this year. As Carroll has said in the past, you can't be a good defense if you give up big plays and long touchdowns, and the Seahawks have consistently been one of the best teams in the league at preventing big plays under Carroll.
"We're not giving up a lot of big plays," Carroll said. "It is a good matchup in that regard. We're always going to go into every game with the thought that we're going to try to keep them from scoring fast. We'll see what happens. They have the other mindset. They're trying to blister it down the field and go get you, and they're really, really good at it. That's a good matchup for us."
Seahawks defensive backs, who frequently face offenses that rely on check-downs so as to avoid testing a secondary full of Pro Bowlers, look forward to a matchup with an offense and a quarterback who won't be afraid to take chances.
"It's fun to play against him, because he's going to take his shots," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He's going to take his shots, he's going to do what he can do get his offense down the field. He's going to read the defense, but he's going to give his receivers a chance to make plays."
Palmer, meanwhile, makes no secret of the fact that his offense will continue to do what has made it successful so far this season, even when facing what has been the league's best defense in recent years.
"We attack, in every situation," Palmer said. "On offense, on defense. We're not a control the clock and run the game at the line of scrimmage, and just get in big personnel groups and wear you down team. We're going to spread you out, we're going to take shots, and we're going to be aggressive. If it's third-and-two, or if it's third-and-twelve. We're going to bring cover zero from both situations on defense, and we're going to take our shots in both situations on offense."