The Monday Night Football showdown for this week features the first-place San Francisco 49ers (5-2) traveling to Arizona to take on the 4-3 Arizona Cardinals in a game that will likely have no impact on the NFC West division race, despite the two teams having nearly identical records. Quite simply, that’s because the 49ers and Cardinals are moving in completely opposite directions this season.
The 49ers are one of the best teams in the entire league. You could argue that they’re the best, although I wouldn’t. Regardless, this is a team that beat the Green Bay Packers, who went 15-1 in 2011, by a 30-22 score in the season opener, and dismantled the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills by 34-0 and 45-3 scores in consecutive games in weeks three and four. They slipped up at home against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, but they rebounded to take down the division rival Seattle Seahawks in a predictably low scoring game.
The 49ers have the league’s top defense in terms of points allowed, and they’ve gotten remarkably lucky with injuries, with no key players on injured reserve or fighting through a major injury. The highlight of this team, though, may not be the defense led by linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks, as well as veteran defensive end Justin Smith. It’s their ridiculous offensive line, where left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone, and right tackle Anthony Davis are all having great seasons. In fact, all but Davis are having tremendous seasons, which is a big reason why veteran running back Frank Gore has been able to average 5.8 yards per carry this season.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, started the season on a tear, winning their first four games. Kevin Kolb led a fourth quarter comeback against the Seahawks and the New England Patriots in the first two games. Against his old team, the Philadelphia Eagles, in week three, he tossed two touchdowns and the Cardinals won by 21 points. But after an overtime win against the Miami Dolphins improved them to 4-0, the Cardinals dropped three in a row, to the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, and Minnesota Vikings. None of those three teams are expected to make the playoffs this season, which is a major indicator that the Cardinals may not be as good as their early 4-0 start.
Despite their late struggles, they still have the fourth best defense in terms of points allowed, and they’ve allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league (6). But their offensive line is beyond awful. It’s as bad as the 49ers’ is good. Three of their starting linemen rate as the three worst players in the entire NFL this season. Left tackle D’Anthony Batiste is the worst, right tackle Bobby Massie is the second worst, and right guard Adam Snyder is the third worst. In fairness, Batiste and Massie were expected to start the season as backups, but became starters when Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges went on injured reserve. The Cardinals are terrible at run blocking, but they are beyond awful as pass blocking, so it’s no wonder that Kolb is out indefinitely with a rib injury. Backup John Skelton is 8-5 in his career as a starter, with six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, although he’s really not that good.
For the 49ers to beat the Cardinals on the road tonight, it’s very simple. They need to contain the Cardinals’ weak run game of LaRod Stephens-Howling (the top two running backs, Ryan Williams and Chris Wells, are both on injured reserve), which shouldn’t be too difficult with their defensive line and linebackers. And they need to run all over the Cardinals, who rank 20th in average yards allowed per rush. In a game between two defensive teams like the 49ers and Cardinals, it’s not about the quarterbacks. Well, it is, but it’s about the quarterbacks not making mistakes, particularly Alex Smith. If Smith can throw the ball fewer than 20 times without an interception, there’s no way the 49ers will lose. And if they can get an early lead on the Cardinals and force Skelton to come out throwing, they should be able to take advantage of a team that averages 4.9 yards per passing attempt, the 31st best total in the NFL, despite dominant wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
I don’t see the 49ers losing this game, even though they’re on the road. Look for Gore to have a big game running the ball, likely over 100 yards, and expect multiple turnovers, as well as a slew of sacks, from Skelton. I’ll take the 49ers in a borderline rout, 23-6.