It’s a “win or loser leaves town” type of matchup this week on “Thursday Night Football” as the Arizona Cardinals travel to Levi’s Stadium to take on the San Francisco 49ers. Arizona is coming off of a disappointing 17-13 loss at home to NFC West rival Los Angeles to 1-3 on the season. Turnovers were the difference as the Cardinals gave the ball away five times despite outgaining the Rams in total yards 420-288. The short week will be a challenge for Arizona and head coach Bruce Arians as it will be interesting to see if the head coach can get his team ready to play without starting quarterback Carson Palmer, who will not even travel with the team because of a concussion he suffered last week.
San Francisco comes into this game with a 1-3 record as well after losing 24-17 at home to Dallas after blowing a 14-0 lead. The 49ers are at a crossroads on both sides of the ball after losing All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman to another season-ending injury, this time a torn Achilles. Offensively, Blaine Gabbert started off well last Sunday against the Cowboys, but was unable to finish the job, going 16-for-23 passes for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception. These numbers are just too pedestrian, and you have to wonder if Chip Kelly would go to Colin Kaepernick in the event that the offensive struggles continue early in this game.
Arizona at San Francisco
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 6 at 8:25 p.m. ET
Broadcast Channels: CBS, NFL Network, Twitter
Spread: Cardinals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona’s Quarterback Play
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians announced Wednesday afternoon that Carson Palmer would not travel with the team to San Francisco because of the lingering effects of the concussion he suffered last week. Drew Stanton will get the start and it is going to be imperative for him to take care of the football if he wants to take advantage of a suspect San Francisco defense. Arizona has thrown for 281.2 yards per game on the season, but between Palmer and Stanton the Cardinals have seven interceptions in comparison to six touchdown passes. That number alone is a big reason why Arizona is sitting at 1-3 and already two games behind the Rams and Seahawks in the NFC West standings. The 49ers do have a susceptible secondary that has allowed 250 yards per game through the air so it will be important for the Cardinals to not play conservative and be aggressive on offense from the opening snap.
2. How will Blaine Gabbert respond in the clutch?
This game in all likelihood is going to go down to the wire, especially if Stanton is in at quarterback for Arizona on Thursday night. Which begs the question, can Gabbert finally carry over his strong play in the first quarter into the second half and push San Francisco over the finish line in games? In the first quarter of games this season, Gabbert has a 70.4 percent completion percentage, averaged 7.6 yards per attempt and posted a quarterback rating of 104.7. So there is a tangible evidence that Gabbert can move the 49ers down the field offensively early in games. But, if Gabbert is going to even be a serviceable quarterback, let alone clutch, he is going to have to become more consistent over the course of the entire game.
3. David Johnson against the 49ers’ rush defense
Johnson is seventh in the NFL this season in rushing yards with 300 and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. San Francisco enters this game ranked last in the league against the run (140.5 ypg), so it would behoove Arizona to feed Johnson as much as possible early on to set up the passing game. In addition, the injury to defensive lineman DeForest Buckner along with the loss of linebacker NaVorro Bowman to a torn Achilles should only make the 49ers even more vulnerable on the ground. Now, it will be up to Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin to take advantage of the situation early and often.
If you are a casual fan of the NFL and looking for a game that will provide plenty of offensive fireworks and high quality football, you are probably going to be disappointed on Thursday night. With both teams as beat up as they are injury- wise, this game has the feel of which team is able to do whatever it needs to survive and move to 2-3 in order to save its season. Even with backup quarterback Drew Stanton starting in place of Carson Palmer, the Cardinals have better personnel than the 49ers across the board, but it will come down to turnovers once again for both teams. Look for Stanton to take care of the football while David Johnson does the heavy lifting on the ground to allow Arizona to escape Levi’s Stadium with a hard-fought, but much-needed win.
Prediction: Cardinals 20, 49ers 17
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.