The reeling 49ers desperately needed a win last week, and they got just what the doctor ordered with a 33-22 victory over the Bears in Chicago.
Now, San Francisco returns home still looking for their first win at Levi’s Stadium in over a year when they host the 7-1 Cardinals. After the win over the Bears, the mood around this team has shifted quickly from “tear it all down” to “playoffs?!” with the 49ers potentially moving into the newly added third wild card spot.
With a 49ers victory on Sunday, coupled with a Panthers loss to the Patriots and a Vikings loss to the Ravens, San Francisco will take over the final position in the NFC playoffs at the mid-point of the season.
Here are my five questions to watch out for on Sunday.
1. Can Jimmy Garoppolo back up his performance against Chicago?
In the 49ers first matchup with the Cardinals this season, it was rookie Trey Lance making his first start of his career.
In the rematch, it will be Jimmy Garoppolo running the offense.
Coming off one of his best starts since 2019 in Chicago last week, Jimmy Garoppolo will face a team that he has been very successful against so far in his career.
Garoppolo has won three of his four starts against the Arizona Cardinals and thrown the for the most yards and touchdowns against them of opponent he has faced. In four games, Garoppolo has completed 105 of 148 pass attempts for 1,264 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
2. Can the 49ers take advantage of the Arizona run defense?
The Arizona defense comes into the game on Sunday ranked second worst in the NFL against the run, allowing 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.
When these two teams last faced off, the 49ers were able to gain 152 yards rushing on 28 attempts. However, 16 of those carries came from 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and the offense struggled to get into sync.
With Garoppolo behind center this week, look for the 49ers to go back to their conventional run game. Last week, they were able to run through a better Chicago Bears defense for 145 yards and three touchdowns on only 26 attempts.
Arizona will be without veteran defensive lineman J.J. Watt on Sunday. In the first matchup, Watt dominated against Mike McGlinchey, shutting several plays down with solid penetration.
For the 49ers, running back Elijah Mitchell is listed as questionable with a rib injury suffered last week. Mitchell currently leads the 49ers in rushing with 433 yards. If he is unable to go, the team may turn to veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. Wilson returned to practice this week for the first time this season and Kyle Shanahan hinted on Friday that his status could depend on where or not Mitchell would be able to go.
3. How will the return of George Kittle impact the 49ers offense?
After missing the last three games with an injury, George Kittle will return to the field on Sunday.
This is a familiar situation for Kittle who last season returned from missing six games to face Arizona. In that week 16 contest a year ago, Kittle made his presence felt with 92 receiving yards on four catches. With Deebo Samuel nursing a calf injury, which is worse this week than last according to Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers could use a similar impact from Kittle on Sunday.
While Kittles’ last touchdown reception came more than a year ago, he is the best run blocking tight end in the NFL, and his presence on the field should provide a boost for the 49ers running game.
4. Who will be the quarterback for Arizona?
Kyler Murray has yet to practice this week for Arizona due to an ankle injury suffered against the Green Bay Packers. The Cardinals have listed Murray as questionable for Sunday.
If Murray is unable to go, Arizona will turn to veteran Colt McCoy.
While not having to face Murray would provide a big advantage for the 49ers defense, they need to be careful.
Replacing the starting quarterback is nothing new for McCoy. Last season as a member of the New York Giants, McCoy led the Giants to a 17-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle.
5. Can the 49ers offense hold onto the football?
The Cardinal’s defense has been among the best in the NFL this season at creating turnovers and the 49ers offense is among the worst at avoiding them.
Arizona has forced a turnover in all but two of their eight games so far this season. Those two games have been their tightest contests, a one-point victory over Minnesota in week two and their loss last week to Green Bay.
On the flip side, the 49ers have not turned the ball over in only two games, victories at Philadelphia and Chicago.
49ers 23 Cardinals 16