The fight for a playoff berth continues for the Arizona Cardinals when they host their temporary stadium houseguests the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday afternoon at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. This will be the second meeting of the year between these two teams as the Cardinals beat the 49ers in Week 1 24-20 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Arizona (8-6) survived the "Lincoln Riley Classic" last week as Kyler Murray outdueled Jalen Hurts in a battle of former Oklahoma quarterbacks as the Cardinals beat Philadelphia 33-26. Murray threw for a career-high 406 yards as the Eagles’ defense had zero answers for him. DeAndre Hopkins caught nine passes for 169 yards and a touchdown to continue his big first season out in the desert. While Hurts put up big numbers of his own (401 total yards, 4 total TDs), Arizona’s defense was able to limit Philadelphia to just six points in the second half. A big part of that was getting off the field on third down. The Cardinals held the Eagles to 6-for-18 in that critical situation.
On the other side, San Francisco (5-9) fell 41-33 to Dallas on the road. The 49ers gave up 291 total yards to the Cowboys but turned the ball over four times. Nick Mullens posted 219 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions before giving way to C.J. Beathard, who completed five of seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. Kendrick Bourne and Brandon Aiyuk were bright spots as they combined to catch 13 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns between them, but it wasn’t enough as San Francisco lost its third in a row.
San Francisco at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 26 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: Amazon Prime Video/Twitch
Spread: Cardinals -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona offense
Kyler Murray is in an interesting spot this week with the Cardinals getting an opportunity to take a big step towards securing a wild-card berth. In the first meeting with San Francisco back in Week 1, Murray went 26-for-40 for 230 yards, a touchdown and an interception. However, it was his legs that ended up being the difference, rushing for 91 yards and a score on 13 carries in the 24-20 victory. Murray will likely have to do more of the same this time, as neither Kenyan Drake nor Chase Edmonds was that effective in the win over Philadelphia, combining for 73 yards on 21 carries. Murray also has DeAndre Hopkins to throw to. The NFL’s leading receiver (1,324 yards on 103 catches), Hopkins lit up the 49ers for 151 yards on 14 grabs in the first meeting.
2. Can San Francisco play keep away from the Cardinals?
Nick Mullens suffered an elbow injury last week and will miss the rest of the season. C.J. Beathard will take over and while he has plenty of experience under his belt, look for head coach Kyle Shanahan to run the ball a lot. With Raheem Mostert getting shut down for the rest of the season that task will largely fall on Jeff Wilson Jr., who is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and leads the team with six rushing touchdowns. Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon are other possible options, but the former has dealt with injuries (played in just games) while the latter is averaging under four yards per carry, although he has scored six times, five of those coming on the ground. Whoever gets the touches needs to be on the alert for safety Budda Baker. A three-time Pro Bowler following this year's selection, Baker makes plays all over the field, as evidenced by the 15 tackles he racked up in the first meeting. Another potential difference-makers for Arizona’s D is linebacker Haason Reddick, who is among the league leaders in both sacks (11.0) and tackles for a loss (19).
3. How will Kliff Kingsbury respond to coaching in a game with huge playoff implications?
This will be a great opportunity for Arizona’s second-year head coach to show his mettle. The Cardinals have had issues on occasion under Kingsbury where the team has lost games at home that they had no business losing. The best example of this in 2020 is in Week 3, a 26-23 loss to Detroit. In that game, Arizona outgained Detroit 377-322 and had a 23-20 lead after three quarters, but three turnovers proved to be costly. Saturday’s game with San Francisco has the potential to unfold in a similar fashion if Kingsbury doesn’t have his team ready to play from the opening snap. One way to avoid a slow or flat start would be to play aggressive in all three phases of the game. If that happens, the Cardinals should win this game going away instead of having to hang on for dear life late in the fourth quarter.
It will be a competitive game for a while in the first half as there is too much pride within the 49ers organization for them to completely give up. Still, the toll of being away from their normal home in Santa Clara County has to show up at some point, not to mention the cumulative effect of all the injuries San Francisco has had to deal with this season. Look for the Cardinals to break the game open in the second half by forcing a couple of turnovers with the offense cashing them in. Arizona takes another step towards a wild-card berth by picking up its ninth win of the season.
Prediction: Cardinals 30, 49ers 17
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Parler @Scottwhittum