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Focus on Cardinals: A playoff team a year ago, 49ers’ final opponent bottomed out in 2022

The lead story on the official website of the Arizona Cardinals Monday says it all:

“With one game left, Cardinals looking at early draft pick”

Arizona began to circle the drain last season under coach Kliff Kingsbury and things got worse in 2022.

In December of 2021, Arizona was 10-2 and touted itself as a Super Bowl contender. Then came a 1-5 finish, an embarrassing no-show in a 34-11 loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs, followed by a 4-12 season.

That’s five wins in their last 22 games. Quarterback Kyler Murray removed Cardinals emblems from his social media during the offseason until he’d leveraged a five-year contract extension worth a maximum of $230 million and $160 million guaranteed.

Murray wasn’t very good this year before departing with a torn ACL – not exactly the ideal injury for someone who depends on his speed and mobility.

The quarterback against the 49ers could be David Blough, who started in a 20-19 loss to Atlanta and was the fourth Cardinals starter this season. Or Trace McSorley. Or veteran Colt McCoy. Kingsbury isn’t ready to declare a starter.

Kingsbury, who was hired in part because he ran the kind of offense at Texas Tech that Murray could thrive in, could be fired as early as Monday. General manager Steve Keim is on an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons and there’s no guarantee he’ll return. An assistant coach, Sean Kugler, was fired for allegedly groping a woman in Mexico City when the Cardinals were there to face the 49ers.

Kugler has filed for arbitration, claiming mistaken identity.

J.J. Watt, a first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive lineman, will retire following the season. DeAndre Hopkins the ultra-productive wideout who started the season on a PED suspension, missed the Atlanta game with a knee injury and may or may not face the 49ers.

The Cardinals look like a lost cause, a team ready to meekly surrender and head into the offseason.

Of course, similar things were said about the Raiders last week in the wake of benching Derek Carr and they took the 49ers to the wire and could have easily won the game.

Whoever does suit up for Arizona is putting the game on film, hoping for employment with the Cardinals and elsewhere. Arizona was within 17-10 of the 49ers on Nov. 21 until the 49ers pulled away. In previous seasons, some of the worst games under Shanahan have come against Arizona. Since Shanahan took over in 2017, the 49ers are 4-7 against Arizona.

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GAME ESSENTIALS:  49ers (12-4) vs. Cardinals (4-12) at Levi’s Stadum, 1:25 p.m. (Fox).  ODDS: 49ers (-13 1/2)


There’s something to play for

Unless you subscribe to the theory that the 49ers ought to consider taking a dive in order to get the No. 3 seed and avoid the potential of facing Aaron Rodgers, they’ll go into the game with a chance to stay at No. 2 or even advance to No 1. Philadelphia (13-3) is hosting the New York Giants (9-6-1) concurrently with the 49ers game and gets the first round bye with a win. The Giants are locked in at No. 6 win or lose. So if a Philly loss seems unlikely, the 49ers, if they stay at No. 2, would be at home throughout the playoffs should the Eagles lose their playoff opener following the bye.

Cameos for Deebo, Elijah Mitchell?

Count on coach Kyle Shanahan remaining tight-lipped on whether Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell will play until the final injury report. If they’re healthy, Shanahan said he wants to use them because they could help the 49ers win, and also to knock off some rust after being out with MCL strains. That may be a bigger deal in Samuel’s case, because Mitchell, currently on injured reserve, has shown the ability to come off long injury layoffs and run with a vengeance.

An angry defense

Go ahead and assume Fred Warner and Co. are more than a little salty about giving up 500 yards, 34 points and 28 first downs to the Raiders. The NFL’s top-ranked defense let its guard down a for and an established standard of play was shattered for a week. Nick Bosa is still two sacks shy of Aldon Smith’s franchise record of 19 ½ and would love to get there. Arizona managed just 10 points and 67 yards rushing when the teams met on Nov. 21 in Mexico City and the 49ers will be looking to equal or do better than that to close out the regular season.

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49ers running back Christian McCaffrey had 26 touches for 193 yards in a 37-34 overtime win against the Raiders. A.P. Photo


The law of averages

Does it apply to the NFL? Probably not, but nine wins in a row is a lot. It’s enough for the 49ers to maybe think they could simply show up and win. The 49ers insisted that didn’t happen against the Raiders. Well, actually, Bosa did say they possibly underestimated quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Given the way the 49ers worked over the Cardinals 38-10 in Mexico City, they’ve got no reason to believe Arizona is any threat at all.

Brock bottoms out

The whole Brock Purdy phenomenon would be impossible to believe if it wasn’t playing out week by week before our very eyes. He’s completing 66 percent his passes (99-for-150) for 1,196 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in four starts plus an extended relief appearance against Miami. The guy has got to have a bad game sometime, right? He did look human when he underthrew a deep ball to George Kittle that was intercepted and got lucky when a fluttering pass while being hit (also intended for Kittle) was caught by Brandon Aiyuk. Better to make the mistakes now than postseason.

Playing it safe with McCaffrey

Shanahan has shown little or no inclination to taper the use of running back Christian McCaffrey, who had his best game against the Raiders with 25 for 193 yards (19 carries for 121  yards, six receptions for 72 yards). So with McCaffrey coming out of the win with an ankle sprain that’s believed to be minor, might Shanahan either rest or minimize the use of the 49ers’ most important acquisition? If so, where does that leave the 49ers? He is the primary mover during the nine-game win streak. He played in the loss to Kansas City, but had only been on the 49ers for two days.

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