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San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals Preview and Prediction

Patrick Peterson Arizona Cardinals

Patrick Peterson Arizona Cardinals

The San Francisco 49ers will visit University of Phoenix Stadium this afternoon to take on the Arizona Cardinals in an all-important NFC West showdown. While the Cardinals (1-2) are coming off a short week following Monday night’s 28-17 loss to the Cowboys, the 49ers (0-3) enter this game well-rested after their controversial 41-39 loss to the Rams on Thursday night in Week 3.

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Needless to say, both teams enter today’s contest badly needing a victory. That’s particularly true for San Francisco, as an 0-4 start in Kyle Shanahan’s first season would include a loss to all three divisional counterparts. A win for the Cardinals would mean Bruce Arians’ team would keep pace in what has become a wide-open NFC West.

Today’s game marks the 52nd meeting between these teams, a series that dates back to 1951. San Francisco leads 29-22 but Arizona has won the past four matchups.

San Francisco at Arizona

Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 1 at 4:05 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Arizona -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Trouble in the trenches for Arizona?

A beat-up Arizona offensive line was woeful in Monday night’s loss to Dallas, allowing Carson Palmer to be sacked six times and hit an additional 11 times. Through three games, the Cardinals have allowed 11 sacks and are tied for the most QB hits allowed in the NFL with 27.

While it was looking promising mid-week for several key offensive linemen to return from injury, it wasn’t meant to be. Four-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati was set to make his return, only to discover that his injured triceps would require surgery. Iupati’s backup, Alex Boone (chest), also is out. Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries was expected to make his return from a knee injury, but a setback has his availability in question. Additionally, Humphries’ backup John Wetzle missed some practice time earlier in the week because of a bicep injury. These injuries combined with the struggles of the right side of the offense line could mean another rough week for Palmer, as well as a running game already missing All-Pro David Johnson.

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The good news is that the 49ers’ pass rush has been somewhat lackluster to this point, tallying just three sacks on the season. The bad news Is that Arizona’s makeshift offensive line still has to contend with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, who leads all interior linemen with 16 QB pressures.

2. Which San Francisco offense/defense will show up?

Despite last week’s loss to the Rams, a San Francisco offense that had been left for dead took a big leap forward, scoring 39 points and racking up 421 yards. A far cry from the six points and 232 yards per game the 49ers managed in their first two games. Quarterback Brian Hoyer turned in his best game of the season by far, throwing for 332 yards and two touchdowns against Los Angeles after posting a total of 292 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in Weeks 1 and 2 combined. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has a reputation for being a quarterback whisperer and turning offenses around in short order, but was the Thursday night outburst a one-week outlier or a sign of things to come?

Unfortunately, while the offense put up some impressive numbers against the Rams, the defense did not, giving up 41 points and 418 yards. This coming after San Francisco’s defense had held Carolina and Seattle to a total of 35 points and an average of 300 yards. So is this 49ers defense more of what it showed in the first two games or a unit that’s trending in the wrong direction? To this point, the offense and defense haven’t clicked in the same game. If that trend continues San Francisco could be staring at a 0-4 start to the season.

3. Keys for each team

The key for San Francisco on defense is simple – pressure Palmer. This shouldn’t be too difficult against Arizona’s beat-up offensive line. On offense, the 49ers can only hope to build off of last week’s performance. But this may not be easy with running back Carlos Hyde dealing with a hip injury that will likely make him a game-time decision for today. The Cardinals’ secondary also could make things difficult on Hoyer and the passing game. It will be critical for someone to step up and make plays, especially if Hyde is limited or ends up not being able to go.

For the Arizona offense, the key will be keeping a clean pocket for Palmer. If the offensive line can somehow provide just enough time for him to locate open targets, the offense should be okay, but that has been a big if in the early going. On defense, the Cardinals need to limit Hyde (assuming he plays) and Pierre Garcon, San Francisco’s top wide receiver. Doing so will put even more pressure on Hoyer to try and make something happen, which could lead to mistakes.

Final Analysis

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The 49ers enter today’s game well-rested, coming off of their best offensive performance of the season, and in desperate need of a win. The Cardinals are not so well-rested after playing on Monday night, the Arizona ground attack has been almost non-existent after losing David Johnson, and the offensive line remains in shambles. That said, this matchup still favors the equally desperate home team and here is why:

For starters, you are more likely to see the bad San Francisco offense from the first two games then you are the attack that filled up the stat sheet last week. The Cardinals simply match up too well against the 49ers defensively. Even if Carlos Hyde is able to play, he will be less than 100 percent, and his track record against Arizona isn’t very good. Without a productive Hyde, it will be difficult for San Francisco to do all of its damage through the air. Pierre Garcon is the only legitimate receiver and he will likely see plenty of All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. Ultimately, the Cardinals should only need a handful of successful plays in the passing game to win this game. Carson Palmer has the weapons to make that happen in spite of his suspect offensive line.

Prediction: Cardinals 20, 49ers 13

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.