After suffering their first loss of the season, the Arizona Cardinals need to refocus on the bigger picture. It was never about going undefeated. The goal has always been to get to the playoffs and make a Super Bowl run. There is no question, Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers will be a statement game for the Cardinals. National pundits have already started writing them off. After opening the week as favorites, the Cardinals are now 2.5-point underdogs to the 49ers.This will be the Cardinals’ third divisional game of the year. Currently at 2-0, they have matched last year’s win total in the NFC West (2-4). A win Sunday will keep them 2.5 games ahead of the Rams and a firm stronghold on any division tiebreaker.
For that to happen, there are three keys the Cardinals need to achieve against the 49ers.
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Stop the run
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In their first meeting, San Francisco ran for a season-high 152 yards against Arizona. This time, quarterback Trey Lance will not be able to account for nearly 90 of those yards, as Jimmy Garoppolo will start for the Niners. 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell has burst through opposing defenses the last two weeks amassing 244 yards with a 6.78 yards per-carry average, but is questionable for the game because of a rib injury. Arizona has allowed 961 yards on the ground, 120.1 per game, which ranks 19th in the league, and a whopping 4.88 yards per play, which ranks second to last.
If there has been one thing the Cardinals have struggled with this season, it is stopping the run. In last week’s game, the Packers weren’t just able to run the ball at will, they were able to tack on additional yards after contact. Future opponents surely took note and will game plan to replicate Green Bay’s success.
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49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is prone to making mistakes. This season, Garoppolo has thrown four interceptions and lost three fumbles. San Francisco has a minus-six net difference in takeaways this season. Arizona has been one of the best in the league this year creating turnovers. They are tied for third in the NFL with 14 takeaways. With the exception of their game against Minnesota, a game the Cardinals should have lost, and their game against Green Bay, a game they did lose, Arizona has won the turnover battle.
Commit the running game
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Kyler Murray’s availability will be a game-time decision. That may put 11-year veteran Colt McCoy in line for his first start as a Cardinal.Whether it’s Murray or McCoy as the starting quarterback, the Cardinals need to use this week to recommit themselves to the ground game. Arizona’s pass protection has struggled the past few weeks. Opponents are scheming more against the pass. The Cardinals cannot make the same mistake they did at the midpoint of last season and become predictable. A stout running effort on Sunday will show future opponents they must respect Arizona’s running threat. They will not be able to focus on just one aspect of the Cardinals offense. In doing so, it will take pressure off the quarterbacks and open their vertical game for the rest of the season.Sunday starts the second stage of the season. After a 7-1 start, Arizona has positioned itself well to make a run at its goal of making the playoffs. The question of their legitimacy and the sustainability of what they’ve built will exist until they quiet the naysayers. A win against the resurgent 49ers will go a long way in building that.