Steven Jackson may return for Falcons in Sunday's game

AP Sports WritethruOctober 26, 2013 

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's been five seasons since the Atlanta Falcons last came to Arizona.

That matchup carried a bit more weight than the one between the two struggling teams on Sunday.

On Jan. 3, 2009, the Cardinals held on for a 30-24 wild-card victory to begin a stunning run to the Super Bowl.

This year, the teams are trying simply to stay afloat in the midseason standings.

The disappointing Falcons (2-4) have lost both road games, but they are coming off a 31-13 victory at home over Tampa Bay that snapped a three-game losing streak. The injury-racked team could be bolstered by the return of running back Steven Jackson, missing since Week 2 with a hamstring injury.

Arizona (3-4) is coming off losses to San Francisco and Seattle in a five-day span, but hasn't played since Oct. 17.

Here are five things to watch for when the Falcons play the Cardinals:

FALCONS HEALTH: The Falcons have listed Jackson as probable for Sunday's game at Arizona.

Jackson, the NFL's active career-leading rusher, participated fully in practice on Friday.

Four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White won't play for the second straight game because of ankle and hamstring injuries.

Starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas (thigh) and reserve running back Jason Snelling (ankle) also are out.

Starting left tackle Sam Baker (knee) and starting linebacker Akeem Dent (ankle) are questionable. Starting defensive tackle Corey Peters (shoulder), cornerback Robert Alford (ankle) and tight end Chase Coffman (ankle) are probable.

If Jackson plays, how effective will he be?

He wouldn't have to be that great to improve the struggling Atlanta ground game, although he said that won't be the motivating factor for him to return. It will all depend on how he and the medical staff view his condition.

Many of the Cardinals know a lot about Jackson from his years with NFC West foe St. Louis.

"Well, I've made no friends in that division," Jackson said. "I expect for Arizona to be who they are. That's a tough-nosed defense. The front seven is as good as anyone in the NFL."

Less positive was the status of wide receiver Roddy White, the Atlanta career leader in receptions and yards receiving who had never missed an NFL game (133 straight) since coming into the league before sitting out the Tampa Bay contest with hamstring and ankle injuries.

Without White, it could be another big afternoon for Harry Douglas, who had seven catches for a career-high 149 yards against the Buccaneers.

TIGHT END WOES: Tight ends have given the Cardinals fits.

San Francisco's Vernon Davis caught eight throws for 180 yards and two TDs two games ago. Two tight ends caught touchdown passes for Seattle last Thursday. Carolina's Greg Olson caught five for 79 before the Panthers inexplicably went away from him. When they played the Saints, Jimmy Graham had nine catches for 134 yards.

Now comes maybe the best of them all, Tony Gonzalez. The NFL's No. 2 all-time receiver, Gonzalez has caught 35 for 369 yards and three touchdowns, pushing his career receptions total to 1,277.

"Probably the best of all time," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "It's fun to go against the best when you coached or played and say `I played against this guy.' Tony Gonzalez is that guy. He's as good as it gets."

PALMER'S PASSING: Carson Palmer could really use a decent performance. He's thrown 11 interceptions in the last five games and has 13 for the season, second most in the NFL.

Critics are placing much of the blame of the Arizona offense's struggles on him. Arians has defended his quarterback, saying the last four interceptions came because receivers ran the wrong routes. There have also been protection issues with a makeshift offensive line that includes untested players at left tackle (Bradley Sowell) and right guard (Paul Fanaicka).

Everybody still seems to struggle with Arians' offensive scheme.

"When you're starting over from scratch with new players, new staff and new playbook, there are going to be some mental errors," Palmer said. "That's part of the deal. We're professionals. It's our job not to let that happen, regardless of any excuses that can be made."

FITZGERALD'S CONDITION: Larry Fitzgerald has been bothered by a sore hamstring since he couldn't finish Arizona's victory over Detroit in Week 2.

Fitzgerald has downplayed the problem, when he acknowledged it at all, but there's no doubt his lack of mobility and speed are factors in the un-Fitzgerald numbers he's accumulated: 32 catches in seven games for 422 yards and four touchdowns.

With the extra time off because the Cardinals played on a Thursday, perhaps Fitzgerald will feel much better. He said he's "good enough to go."

He needs four catches to be the youngest in NFL history to reach 800 career receptions, 30 years, 57 days.

RYAN'S PASSING: When Arizona, in the midst of losing 11 of its last 12, played at Atlanta last season, the Cardinals intercepted Matt Ryan a career-worst five times and he didn't throw a touchdown pass.

Fast-forward to this season, when through six games, Ryan has three interceptions.

Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson wants to see last year's Ryan.

"We need to force some early turnovers. We need to get in his face," Peterson said, "because they do like to throw the ball."

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