Coming into this season, it was widely accepted that the San Francisco 49ers would run away with the NFC West crown. Between their impresive 2011 campaign and the general ineptitude that has been displayed by their division-mates over the past few years, the Niners just seemed like a logical pick.
Things haven't gone according to plan through seven weeks, though.
San Francisco has underperformed only slightly this year (the Vikings loss was peculiar; the Giants' one was forgivable), however, the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks have overperformed to a point where even their most ardent supporters are probably surprised. Sure, both clubs have their respective weaknesses – but so do the Niners.
Tonight’s Monday Night Football showdown is huge for both teams. If Arizona wins, they instantly move up to the top of the NFC West and all of their recent missteps will be forgotten. Plus, with outings against the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons scheduled over the next three weeks, this team needs to nab its wins wherever it can get them. San Francisco, meanwhile, has exactly two difficult games remaining this year – games that are separated by nearly a month. (Hosting the Chicago Bears on Nov. 19; at the New England Patriots on Dec. 16.) For Jim Harbaugh and Co., this outing is simply about shoving the Cardinals back down to earth before they gain any legitimate momentum.
With all that in mind, here are three things to watch for during tonight’s game:
San Francisco 49ers
1. Can they get the running game going early?
This team goes as Frank Gore goes. It is no coincidence that the Niners’ only two losses of the year also featured their No. 1 running back gaining his lowest yardage totals of the season. So far in 2012, Gore has racked up 603 yards and four touchdowns. He and Kendall Hunter (258 yards and one touchdown on the year) spearhead the fiercest rushing attack in the league (5.8 and 5.2 yards per carry respectively). That said, it is worth noting that Gore is coming into this one a bit hobbled. If he can’t get it going – the onus will fall on Alex Smith to have a big game. (Which is always risky.)
2. Can Alex Smith stop throwing the ball away?
As was made painfully clear when he threw a pick in the red zone last week, the Alex Smith we have seen over the past two games isn’t the one who was a darkhorse MVP candidate in the first month of the season. After throwing a mere one pick in his first five outings, Smith has thrown four over his last two. (Both of which were played at home, no less.) The Cardinals’ pass defense is fourth in the league this year. If they frustrate Smith early, we could get a repeat of the performance that he put up against New York two games ago.
3. Can this defense shut John Skelton down?
The Niners boast the best passing defense in the league, so they would be a handful for any opponent. The Cardinals’ offensive line is the worst in football – giving up a league-leading 35 sacks thus far this season. John Skelton is hurt and not even particularly effective when he is healthy; if the Arizona defense doesn’t score, don’t be surprised if San Francisco records a shutout tonight.
1. Can LaRod Stephens-Howling open things up for the passing game?
Last week, LaRod Stephens-Howling recorded 104 yards and a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. His 5.2 yards per carry average, given Arizona’s offensive line, is pretty impressive. Of course, there is a big difference between racking up big yardage against the No. 16 ranked rush defense and doing it against No. 10 ranked rush defense. If he can repeat some of what he showed versus Minnesota, Stephens-Howling could give Arizona a slim chance in this one. If not – this team’s odds of winning tonight drop dramatically.
2. Can John Skelton score a single early touchdown?
If John Skelton is able to score in the first half, that will mean one of two things: either a.) he has found a way to persevere despite his porous offensive line or b.) the Niners defense is having an off night. Either way, an early score combined with Alex Smith’s propensity for throwing the ball away gives the Cardinals a chance. If Skelton can’t get anything going before the fourth (even if it’s 0-0), though, chances are San Francisco emerges from this one with a W.
3. Can John Skelton avoid throwing interceptions?
Almost as important as his ability to score, is John Skelton’s ability to keep San Francisco from scoring easy points. According to ESPN, Skelton has racked up an NFL-worst 4.9 interception percentage since Nov. 6 of last year – throwing 17 picks in 349 attempts. If he throws the ball away to this crazy Niners defense, this could turn into a very long night for Cardinals.