Perhaps it’s the only thing left to play for.
The San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) come home after their worst loss of the season to face the Arizona Cardinals (5-10) in the last game of the regular season. The 49ers lost ground in the playoff picture with week 16′s loss in Seattle as the Green Bay Packers (11-4) took control of the #2 seed. The only thing that San Francisco can do by themselves this weekend is win the NFC West. The 49ers can only claim the #2 seed with a win over the Cardinals along with the Packers losing in Minnesota.
Arizona and San Francisco have faced each other before back in week 8 when the 49ers beat the Cardinals 24-3. The Cards have had many different starters at quarterback this season and this Sunday’s game will feature another one getting a shot. Brian Hoyer, who is in his fourth year in the NFL, will get his shot at last making his first NFL start against the 49ers.
“This is an opportunity I have waited a long time for,” Hoyer said. “I didn’t think it’d come with the Arizona Cardinals this year. But I am happy it did. When you get an opportunity like this you just have to prepare the best you can and make the most of it.”
Arizona starting Brian Hoyer makes him the 4th different starting quarterback for the team this season. Hoyer wasn’t even on the Cardinals until he was claimed from Pittsburgh earlier this month. Hoyer came in during last Sunday’s loss to the Bears and went 11/19 with 105 passing yards. However, he did throw an interception in that game and fumbled the ball once.
While the Cardinals are considerable underdogs heading into Candlestick, the 49ers defense are coming off their worst performance of the season with some still trying to forget what happened in Seattle.
“You try to forget about the last game, but you can’t forget about it,” LB Ahmad Brooks said on Wednesday. “It was just a few days ago. It is what it is, but we’ve got to move on this week and capitalize on what we want and that would be a division title.”
While they will try and move on, the 49ers still might do it without defensive tackle Justin Smith who missed last week’s game in Seattle due to an elbow injury sustained a week before. Smith had made 185 consecutive starts until it came to an end in week 16. ESPN sources are saying that Smith will try and play in the postseason but still nothing about this Sunday. If Smith doesn’t play Sunday, LB Patrick Willis is sure that the defense can get it done against the Cardinals.
“It’s one of those things where each person has to take it up another whole notch,” Willis said. “I know if we just turn it up some more and play attention to detail and play the way we’re capable of playing – you can’t fill his shoes, nobody can come in and do that – but I know we can certainly get it done.”
The 49ers also have a different starting quarterback going against the Cardinals in Colin Kaepernick. After a great performance in New England, Kaepernick and the offense struggled against Seattle not getting their first TD until 1:40 left in the game and still being down by 29. Kaepernick might have thrown the TD but he was sub-par going 19/36 for 244 passing yards and an interception thrown into the endzone.
What makes things more difficult this Sunday for Kaepernick is the fact the offense must rebound without Mario Manningham who is out with a knee injury and possibly without Vernon Davis who suffered a concussion in Seattle. Manningham is done for the season but Vernon is a game-time decision with limited practice Thursday.
The 49ers do have options to fill in the vacancies if need be. First round draft pick A.J. Jenkins might see some action along with more time for Ted Ginn Jr. As for tight ends, rookie Garrett Celek might contribute more along with Delanie Walker. Injuries are just something the team has to work through right now.
“We have a lot of tight ends, a lot of receivers that can contribute,” Jenkins said. “Unfortunately, guys went down, but we have that pleasure of having a lot of depth. So we’ll keep rolling.”
Another spot where the 49ers have to just work through injuries are on the ground game. While the absence of Kendall Hunter hasn’t plagued the 49ers much, there was a noticeable lack of effort to establish a ground game in Seattle. The 49ers only ran it 19 times in week 16 and 7 of those carries were from Kaepernick.
Perhaps it is Hunter’s absence or just overconfidence in the passing game with Kaepernick at the helm but the 49ers still need to play to their strength of running the ball effectively and repeatedly. They should be able to run against the Cardinals who are ranked 28th in run defense allowing 137.5 yards per game on the ground. It wouldn’t also be a bad idea to do so considering that the Cardinals are ranked 3rd in pass defense.
As for Arizona’s rushing game, they have moved on one of the worst rushing teams to the worst rushing team. The Cardinals are dead last in the league in both rushing yards per game (76.6) and yards per carry (3.4). Arizona ran it 19 times against the Bears this last Sunday and only got 29 yards on the ground. The 49ers have taken a bit of a hit against the Seahawks but they should be able to handle the Arizona running attack.
What does the last game of the season have in store for the 49ers? Look for a strong performance from San Francisco heading into the postseason while Arizona sees if Brian Hoyer can get the ball into Larry Fitzgerald hand’s better than anyone else so far this year. Fitzgerald has been targeted 148 times this season but has only 69 receptions.
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Written by Daniel Trucios