Two of the top rookies in the NFL lead their teams into a key NFC West showdown, as Nick Bosa and the San Francisco 49ers take on Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. This will also provide fans with an interesting battle between creative offensive head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Kliff Kingsbury in front of a national television audience.
San Francisco demolished the Panthers on Sunday, 51-13, and the game wasn’t even that close. The 49ers improved to 7-0 for the second time in franchise history, the first time since 1990. The ground attack was lights-out for San Francisco with 232 yards on 38 attempts. Tevin Coleman rushed for 105 yards on 11 carries and three touchdowns and also picked up a fourth score with a 10-yard reception in the second quarter. Nick Bosa was just about unstoppable with four tackles, including three for loss, three sacks, and an interception. Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley also intercepted Kyle Allen, as the Panthers quarterback could not get anything going in the passing game for Carolina.
Meanwhile, Arizona (3-4-1) was solid down in New Orleans last week, where they were within striking distance of an upset of the Saints in the second half. However, New Orleans put the hammer down late and pulled away from the Cardinals, 31-9 at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Kyler Murray was 19 of 33 for 220 passing yards but wasn’t able to stretch the Saints' defense. The Cardinals only had one huge explosive play all day — a 47-yard pass to Charles Clay. Running the football remains a problem for Arizona; they were only able to generate 40 yards on 11 attempts and Chase Edmonds joined the ever-growing injured ranks. Drew Brees made his return for the Saints and shredded the Cardinals secondary for 373 yards and three touchdown passes.
San Francisco at Arizona
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 31 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: 49ers -8
Three Things to Watch
1. 49ers ground attack
The quickest way for San Francisco to put this game away on Thursday night will be establishing a dominant running game as they did against Carolina. There is enough depth in the backfield with Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert to spread the carries around a little bit like they did on Sunday. The offensive line will set the tone in establishing the run and blowing open holes for the running backs. Arizona ranks 25th in the NFL in stopping the run and couldn’t stop Latavius Murray on Sunday in the loss to the Saints. Murray rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries and had a touchdown. Thus, you can expect head coach Kyle Shanahan to force the Cardinals to step up and try and sell out against the run, which will open up the play-action passing game.
2. Kyler Murray vs. San Francisco’s defense
Murray has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,768 yards with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions in his first eight NFL games. Murray has faced a mix of challenges in regard to different defensive looks and has held up well for a rookie. Fast forward to this week, and facing San Francisco will be like a graduate school course. The 49ers defense is rolling, and the defensive line led by DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa and Co. are a completely different beast to deal with. Thus, Murray is going to be under siege all night long, as he has been sacked 23 times already in eight games. Getting Murray out on the edge with his legs will be a challenge, but the Cardinals have to give it a shot to relieve some of the relentless pressure that will come on Thursday night. Screen passes to Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, and the running backs could potentially slow down the 49er defense.
3. Trade deadline acquisitions
San Francisco went out last week and acquired wideout Emmanuel Sanders which should give a nice boost to the receiving corps to help Jimmy Garoppolo. Sanders caught four passes for 25 yards and a touchdown on Sunday against the Panthers. His experience should help the rest of the wide receivers continue to evolve as the season goes along. The 49ers are going to have a situation or two in the second half where the defense proves to be human, and the passing game will have to rise to the occasion in a key spot. So it is very understandable that San Francisco traded for Sanders to send a strong message to the locker room that they are all-in on going for a Super Bowl run.
Arizona got in on the trade deadline fun Monday by acquiring running back Kenyan Drake from Miami for a conditional 2020 draft pick. The Cardinals were in a tough spot at running back with injuries to David Johnson (ankle) and Chase Edmonds (hamstring), so they had to make a move to get a player like Drake, who has 348 total yards on the year (174 rushing, 174 receiving). A fresh start in a new city and organization that is not intentionally tanking could revitalize Drake. The 25-year-old is also playing for that all-important second contract, so as long as he is healthy, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.
The 49ers are right there in the conversation with New England as the best team in the NFL. Thursday night will provide another national stage for San Francisco to make a statement to the rest of the NFL about how good they are. The running game for San Francisco will be the difference, along with winning the turnover battle by two. Expect the 49ers to methodically pull away for a comfortable double-digit victory over the Cardinals for win number eight.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Cardinals 17
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter@ScottWhittum.