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49ers vs. Cardinals: 5 keys to winning final tune-up for playoffs


SANTA CLARA – The NFL playoffs start next weekend, but, first, the 49ers have some regular-season business to finish.

The NFC West champs host the Arizona Cardinals and seek to extend their win streak to 10 in a row. Then they’ll let the NFC seeds fall where they may.

“I’m sure Kyle (Shanahan) will have that in mind more than anybody,” Nick Bosa said of the 49ers’ coach’s strategy. “We’re obviously hoping for the perfect scenario, but as you saw last week, there are no easy opponents in this league. We have to win this game.”

The 49ers won 37-34 in overtime in last Sunday’s first visit to the Las Vegas Raiders. Here are how Sunday’s scenarios could unfold for the 49ers’ third playoff berth in four seasons:

— No. 1 seed: The 49ers (12-4) can move up to this spot like their 2019 Super Bowl team, by virtue of winning at Levi’s Stadium, while the Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) lose a third straight at their home against the No. 6-seed New York Giants (9-6-1). Both games kick off at 1:25 p.m.

— No. 2 seed: This is the 49ers’ current locale, so a win assures them of at least this spot and, thus, hosting a divisional-round game if they make it out of next weekend’s wild-card round, also at home. The 49ers hold a tiebreaker advantage over the Minnesota Vikings (12-4) based on NFC play (the 49ers are 9-2; the Vikings 7-4). The Vikings visit the Chicago Bears (3-13) at 10 a.m., so that outcome should be known by the 49ers’ game. A Vikings’ loss also keeps the 49ers at No. 2.

— No. 3 seed: If the Cardinals (4-12) snap a six-game losing streak to upset the 49ers, and if the Vikings defeat the Justin Fields-less Bears, then the No. 3 seed is the 49ers’.

Yep, it’s as easy as 1-2-3. Three other berths are locked up by the NFC South-winning and No. 4-seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8), the Dallas Cowboys (12-4) and the Giants. The Cowboys could still win the NFC East if the Eagles falter, and even the No. 1 seed if the 49ers and the Vikings also lose. The NFC’s final spot is up for grabs between 8-8 squads: the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.

Next weekend could feature the No. 2-seed 49ers hosting the No. 7-seed Packers, in a rematch of last year’s divisional-round comeback by the 49ers at Lambeau Field. “I haven’t even thought that far ahead,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “The thought of that is fun, intriguing. We’ll see.”

Here is what the 49ers need to see Sunday to win their 10th straight:

WEATHER EQUALIZER?

Week-long rain could give way to partly cloudy skies by kickoff. If the weather doesn’t surface as an equalizer, then turnovers sure could.

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“(Rain) affects guys carrying the football, and ball security is No. 1 thing this time of year, to not turn the ball over,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said.

Rain fell on this week’s practices, which aren’t being run as full speed as those early in the season. “Nobody wants to practice in the rain,” safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. said. “But we’ve played in rain games. As long as it’s not like Chicago.”

The 49ers have 17 turnovers and 26 takeaways this season, for a plus-9 differential that ranks only behind the Dallas Cowboys (plus-11).

WHAT’S IN CARDS?

No Kyler Murray (knee) or Colt McCoy (concussion). No DeAndre Hopkins (knee). No problem? Oh gosh, not this again.

Caught off-guard by Jarrett Stidham’s productivity in his first career start for the Raiders, the 49ers should know better than to ease up against the Cardinals’ backups, even if this should be a gimmie.

“Do I think we need that? Not necessarily,” Warner said of the defense’s self-inflicted wounds last Sunday. “You learn a lot when you get humbled like that. You’d like to learn while being dominant, like we have been. But that’s life, that’s football.”

Arizona is down to its fourth quarterback, David Bough, who started last Sunday’s 20-19 loss at Atlanta (24-of-40, 222 yards, one touchdown). Asked if he knew anything about him, Bosa replied: “Not much at all, but not taking anybody lightly.” Bough lost his other five career starts with the Detroit Lions, who released him Sept. 1 to make room for 49ers castoff Nate Sudfeld.

Bough might be wise to target tight end Trey McBride, seeing how Raiders tight ends Darren Waller and Foster Moreau capitalized on flaws in the 49ers’ defense. Others to watch: running back James Conner (782 yards, seven touchdowns) and wide receivers Marquise Brown (wrist) and A.J. Green.

DEFENSIVE MOMENTUM

So much for a historic and legendary defense, right? Surrendering 34 points to a quarterback in his first career start is no way to bolster your reputation. They’re still the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense, but they’ve fallen to No. 3 in yards allowed per game; the Bills climbed to No. 1 by virtue of Monday night’s brief work in their eventually canceled game at the Bengals.

The 49ers’ defensive lapses last game were a combination of issues that have surfaced during this season, though Warner also gave proper credit to the Raiders’ efforts.

“We have to play better on the back end with eye discipline. It’s cost us some really big plays,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “(Talanoa Hufanga) has to clean up his eyes. Too many big plays are being given up, and Huf knows that. Protecting us in the back end as ‘The Eraser, he can’t be dirty. He has to be better.”

Ryans noted he’s happy with Deommodore Lenoir’s growth, but that he and everyone can play better. Helping them out is a pass rush that would like to get more production from others beside Bosa. Samson Ebukam has 4 1/2 sacks, his same total each of the previous three seasons.

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Bosa is two sacks shy of the 49ers’ single-season record of 19 1/2, set by Aldon Smith in 2012. Will Fred Warner (122 tackles) catch Dre Greenlaw (127 tackles) to finish as the team’s leading tackler for the fifth time in Warner’s five seasons?

Greenlaw won’t play because of back pain from last game, opening the door for Warner’s tackle chase. “I feel bad for (Greenlaw), honestly, because it’s going to require him missing two games (all season) in order for me to pass him with me playing all 17,” Warner said. “He’s had a heck of a season. If I get six (tackles), I get six. If I don’t, I don’t.”

RUSHING ROTATION

Christian McCaffrey deserves a break. His 193-yard, Vegas show left him with a mild ankle sprain. He’s been dealing with a knee issue since Nov. 27. He needs to be fresh for his first playoff run since his 2017 rookie season’s wild-card exit with Carolina.

But Shanahan said McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell all will play, for only the fourth time this season together.

That doesn’t mean the 49ers must extensively play them or overwork Samuel, who just returned to practice Wednesday from Dec. 11 sprains to his left knee and ankle.

What the 49ers should do is have Mitchell maximize his snap-count production, and also deploy rookies Jordan Mason (35 carries, 230 yards) and Ty Davis-Price (26 carries, 72 yards). Are they capable pass protectors or receivers, however?

POINT PRODUCTION

The 49ers have scored over 30 points in four of the five games since Brock Purdy replaced Jimmy Garoppolo.

At 25.8 points per game, they’re on pace to average their third-most points in a season in 25 years (29.9 ppg. in both 1998 and 2019).

The 49ers should want to keep their point-scoring momentum going with Purdy, who’ll attempt to become the first rookie quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. (Ben Roethlisberger reached the 2004 AFC Championship Game as a rookie.)

Purdy won’t be left with a skeleton support crew around him. “If we had nothing to play for, I’d definitely take care of guys a lot more with one week to go,” Shanahan said. “But we have a lot to play for.”

Tight end George Kittle sure has been worth playing. He scored his career-high ninth touchdown last Sunday, and he had two touchdowns in the 49ers’ 38-10 win over the Cardinals on Nov. 21.

Added Bosa: “We just have to win, because, either way with the Eagles, we have to make sure we get the 2-seed.”

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