The 49ers head into their Week 17 showdown with the Arizona Cardinals on the heels of last week's embarrassment at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. Anything that could go wrong, did. They lost the game 42-13 while losing their No. 2 receiver, Mario Manningham for the season to a knee injury. Factor in Justin Smith missing his first game in 185 starts and Vernon Davis being knocked silly on a vicious hit by Kam Chancellor and you get the point.
This week's game has become critical for the 49ers on multiple fronts, following Week 16's developments. The 49ers need the victory, or a Seattle loss to clinch the NFC West title for the second year in a row. A win and a Green Bay loss would allow the 49ers to sneak back into the No. 2 seed, a position they relinquished after last week and could definitely use, as the first-round bye it earns would give them an extra week to rest their banged up roster before elimination games begin. It appeared to be a long shot that the Packers would lose either of their last two, but with Minnesota's surprise win at Houston last week, the Vikings are still in the playoff picture and the Packers will be playing a team with plenty on the line.
The same can't be said for the 49ers. They're up against a Cardinals team that is in absolute turmoil. With a shock blowout of the also reeling Detroit Lions two weeks ago, the Cardinals avoided dropping their 10th in a row. It was their only bright spot in the second half of the season and they regressed to their losing ways against the visiting Bears in Week 16. Coach Ken Wisenhunt is rumored to be on the hot seat. Many of the Cardinals' players (Calais Campbell, notedly) have expressed a strong dislike for the 49ers, and they would surely love to play the spoiler while ending their season on a positive note.
The last time these two teams played, in Week 8 in Arizona, was Alex Smith's last full game as the 49ers' quarterback. It was also one of his finest. He went 18 of 19 for and 232 yards passing and three touchdowns. His 157.1 quarterback rating was just short of perfect for the second time on the season and, had he had one more completion he would have set a single-game NFL record for accuracy. The following game, against the Rams, Smith was knocked out of the contest with a concussion and you know what happened after that.
Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' starting quarterback since Smith's unfortunate exit, will need to bounce back from his worst game as a starter. He went 19 of 36 for 244 yards against the Seahawks in Week 16. He threw a horrible interception in the end zone before adding a meaningless touchdown at the end of the game. This was only a week after he was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his play in the 49ers' victory over the New England Patriots. He won't be required to do a lot against a slightly above average Cardinals defense supported by one of the worst offenses in recent memory.
The Cardinals defense started the year strong but have slid lately. In their last 5 games they've given up 28 or more 3 times, including 58 to Seattle and 31 points to the Rams, their season-high for points scored. Recently they've fallen to 28th in yards allowed on the ground.
The 49ers, following one of their worst rushing outputs of the season, will look to re-establish their run game behind their offensive line, which just this week had all five starters named as Pro Bowl starters or alternates. Frank Gore was held to 28 yards on 6 carries in the Seahawks game, both season lows. Their 82 yards rushing as a team was only two yards off of their season low.
A big question going into this contest will be the state of the 49ers' pass receivers. With Vernon Davis suffering a concussion in last week's game, he comes into this contest listed as questionable. Manningham's loss moves everyone up the depth chart at wide receiver. Kyle Williams was lost for the year in Week 11. Randy Moss will be the No. 2 receiver with under-performing Ted Ginn Jr. (2 catches and 1 yard on the year) and rookie A.J. Jenkins (0 catches) left to battle for reps in the passing game.
If the 49ers can establish the run game there will be little pressure on the passing game to produce (especially if the 49ers' defense does its job). This would allow the coaches to integrate the 'new' pieces in the passing game and work out who will be doing what going forward. That's the ideal, and against any team but the toothless Cardinals, it would be unadvisable to hope for that to work.
On the other side of the ball is where the big mismatch occurs. The 49ers' defense is one of the top units in the league, even after surrendering 42 points to the Seahawks and 34 to the Patriots. The Cardinals field an offense that is in absolute disarray. On the year, the Cardinals rank last in yards, first downs, yards per pass attempt, rushing yards and yards per rush attempt. If Arizona scores more than 7 points it would have to be considered a moral defeat for the Niners' unit.
In their last meeting, the Cardinals gained 7 yards on the ground. Beanie Wells, ostensibly their featured back, is healthy again, but is still averaging just 2.7 yards per carry on the season. There is every reason to believe the 49ers' run defense will hold Arizona and their offensive line, ranked last in adjusted line yards by Football Outsiders, in check, forcing them to rely on the pass.
It's hard to identify a strong point on the Cardinals offense. The passing game most certainly isn't it. They're marching out Brian Hoyer this week in San Francisco, their fourth starter of the season. The saddest part about the state of the Cardinals QB position is that we're watching one of the best receivers of our generation, Larry Fitzgerald waste the later part of his prime. On the year he has 69 catches for 785 yards and 4 touchdowns, far below the output we've come to expect.
Aldon Smith will be going against one of the worst pass-protecting lines in the game with one of football's most coveted records in his grasp. He entered Week 15 against New England 3 sacks shy of the single-season sack record of 22.5, held by Michael Strahan. He has zero sacks in his last two games and will need a monster effort if he plans on eclipsing Strahan's mark. His play has dropped off mightily since Justin Smith suffered a partially torn triceps muscle against the Patriots and Justin Smith is expected to miss the game against the Cardinals.
Of major concern for the 49ers is their red zone play on both sides of the ball. On defense, the 49ers are ranked 30th in percentage of red zone possessions turned into touchdowns. On offense, they're ranked 22nd in the same stat. Red zone play on offense was one of the fatal flaws of the 2011 49ers, along with third down offense (ranked 23rd in that category). Both areas of play were targeted for improvement by front office and fans alike. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. With new parts getting worked into the passing game at this late stage of the year, it's going to be hard to address them now.
The 49ers continued their pattern of bafflingly inconsistent play with their loss the Seahawks. There are numerous reasons for a team to play a game like the one played in Seattle. If it were only one game, it would be an anomaly, but it's a pattern that's lasted all season. Losses to the Vikings, Giants, Rams and Seahawks have shown that anyone can beat them on any given day but the 49ers should be able to beat the Cardinals every day.
It's hard to envision a way that the Cards move the ball against the 49ers. Their run game should be completely snuffed out, leaving new starter Brian Hoyer to try to figure out a 49ers pass defense ranked 4th in the league. If that holds true, the offense will be able to operate without the pressure of needing to win the game. It would also give the defense a chance to play far less snaps than they have in the last two high-scoring affairs. The offense should be able to incorporate new schemes for their promoted pieces while still putting up enough to win. I've got the 49ers 27-6 in this one.