At first glance, there is not much exciting about week 17’s matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers are 10-4-1 and have already clinched a playoff berth. On the opposite sideline, the Cardinals are 5-10 and their fans are surely looking forward to the draft already. But upon further examination, this game holds quite a bit of intrigue. Here are some storylines to watch for.
Aldon Smith Chases Strahan’s Sack Record Like He Chases Quarterbacks
The 49ers outside linebacker/defensive lineman still sits at 19.5 sacks, three behind the single-season record of 22.5 set by the former New York Giant defensive end. Smith has not had a sack in his last two games, casting doubt on the likelihood that he is able to break the sack record. But a week 17 matchup against the Cardinals might be what Smith needs to surpass the record. The Cardinals have allowed 93 hits on their quarterbacks (more on this to come) and a league-worst 56 sacks. With the offensive line iffy, relative uncertainty at the quarterback position (almost to my next point on the QB, hang with me), and a running game that has been plagued by injuries all season, the stars seem to be aligning for Smith to get the 3.5 sacks he needs to sneak by Strahan (unless JJ Watt of the Texans is able to beat the record as well).
A Vikings Win Helps the Cowboy Heal
Yes, the Vikings are not in this game. But they can have a huge impact on the playoff seeding of the 49ers. Should the Vikings defeat the Packers and the 49ers can beat the Cardinals, San Francisco will become the number two seed in the playoffs and will receive a much needed first round bye. Should the 49ers sneak in as the second seed, it’ll allow defensive end Justin Smith to get an extra week worth of treatment and rest for his partially torn triceps. The 49ers defense has not been the same since Smith was injured against the New England Patriots. “The Cowboy” has become the heart and soul of the ferocious defense. Without their leader, the squad seems to have lost some of their ‘edge.’ An extra week for Smith to heal up would be infinitely beneficial for the 49ers and their Super Bowl aspirations. If Smith is healthy enough to be on the field for a sizeable portion of snaps, the defense is in that much better of shape. He clogs gaps in the run game and opens holes for pass rushers when the opposing team airs it out. A reasonably healthy Justin Smith means a happy 49ers defense.
(And Now) The Cardinals Quarterback Conundrum
Colin Kaepernick’s role with the 49ers has already been well-documented by media outlets across the nation. So lets focus on the Cardinals’ starter Brian Hoyer. The fourth-year quarterback out of Michigan State will be making his first career start, making him the fourth quarterback to make an appearance on the Cardinals Quarterback Carousel. Hoyer’s three teammates/starting predecessors Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley, have combined to put up the worst Quarterback Rating in the NFL with a 62.5 rating (44 points behind the league-leading Packers). Hoyer was a good quarterback in college, but has struggled with accuracy. His average completion percentage at MSU was 55.8%, a number low by NFL standards. If Hoyer wants to be successful against an angry 49ers defense, he’ll need to get the ball out of his hand quickly and throw towards All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has become lost in the quarterback shuffle, and he’ll need to connect with Hoyer to beat the 49ers.
In addition to finishing the season on a positive note, Hoyer will likely be playing to become a regular fixture with the Cards. While Kolb was decent this year, injuries hit him hard and he continues to underachieve, especially given the sizeable contract the Cardinals gave him. Skelton has shown flashes of being a quality quarterback in his tenure in Arizona, but injuries to him and around him have caused inconsistent play. So if Hoyer can put up a big time performance against not only a divisional opponent but also one of the best defenses in the NFL, expect to hear Hoyer’s name again come time for training camp next season.
Hoyer will do his best to beat the playoff-bound 49ers but will ultimately come up short. The Cardinals simply lack the high-caliber talent at the key offensive positions (excluding Fitzgerald) and the 49ers will be in a bad mood and looking to take it out on the Cardinals. The 49ers enter the playoffs on a high note with a 38-10 win.
Where To Watch Online: Niners at Cardinals
*Stats obtained from: espn.com, nfl.com, and football-reference.com.981370