When quarterback Carson Palmer was injured last season, the Cardinals were thinking big: playoffs — and beyond. Arizona was 9-1 and cruising. Palmer was piloting an offense that was extremely potent and looked practically unstoppable at times. After two games in 2015, ‘Zona appears to be back on that track, and the Cards get a chance Sunday to take a big NFC West step by dumping the visiting Niners.
Offense isn’t a problem for San Francisco this season. It’s the other side of the ball that has caused some problems, particularly against the pass. If the 49ers don’t tighten things up, it won’t matter how well Colin Kaepernick (69.4 percent completion rate) is slinging it, they will be in trouble. A team that for the past few years tried to win games by playing solid defense and low-risk O has found itself in an opposite situation, thanks to injuries and retirements. SF can’t afford to let things get out of hand this week against a potent Cardinal attack.
San Francisco at Arizona
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Larry Land
Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after catching eight passes for 112 yards and a regular-season personal best of three TDs in the Cards’ rout of Chicago. Fitzgerald is averaging 14.4 yards on his 14 catches so far and appears to be completely back to his Pro Bowl form.
“What I’m capable of doing, what I’ve done, it speaks for itself,” Fitzgerald said. “At this point, I’m just more so happy to be on a team that really has an opportunity to do something special.” With Palmer completing 64.3% of his passes and throwing seven TDs against one interception, it would appear as if Fitzgerald’s prosperity will continue.
2. Statistically Speaking
The Niners are enjoying some great individual performances on offense. Kaepernick has been exceedingly accurate, and running back Carlos Hyde has run for 211 yards and two scores, while averaging 5.4 yards/carry. Kaepernick is spreading the ball around well — Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis have combined for 19 catches — and the Niners appear to have their attack running at a good clip.
Even though new Niners head coach Jim Tomsula has a defensive background, his team struggled mightily last week in the 43-18 loss to the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and three TDs in the rout, and opposing QBs are completing 74.6 percent of their throws. Unless the Niners tighten things up, there could be big trouble on Sunday in the desert.
This is a huge game for the Niners, who run the risk of falling two games behind the Cards in the standings and helping Arizona get another quick start. San Francisco cannot afford to let Palmer get comfortable in the pocket, because he is extremely confident right now, and with Hyde to provide some balance, has the ability to lean on the running game if SF decides to blitz too much.
The Cardinals have a great opportunity to step forward in the West, and they can do it in front of their home crowd. There is no reason to think Arizona isn’t capable of the big start they authored last year, particularly in an NFC West that looks pretty wide open now. Jumping to 3-0 could set up big things down the road.
Prediction: Cardinals 31, Niners 23
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.