For the second straight season, the Arizona Cardinals are 2-0 – but in order to open 2015 with three straight victories, they’ll have to get past a team that has claimed ownership status over them.
Here are three questions and a prediction for the Cards’ NFC West division matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. in Glendale.
1. Can the Cards contain Kaepernick?
Before you assume (if you haven’t already) that the Cardinals will have an easy time with the Niners, remember just how much QB Colin Kaepernick enjoys playing the Cards. The fifth-year pro is 4-1 all-time against Arizona, throwing nine touchdown passes and just one interception in those contests for a passer rating of 106.2. He’s also rushed for 164 yards on 30 carries, a healthy 5.5 yards per rush.
Kaepernick has rushed for over 500 yards in each of his last two seasons and has 92 yards on the ground through two games this year. It’s a pick-your-poison scenario with the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder; will the Cards do a better job containing him on the ground and through the air than they have in the past?
2. Will the running game stay strong?
Reports suggest Cardinals starting running back Andre Ellington will miss his second straight game with a knee injury, leaving it up to the Johnson duo of Chris and David to once again hold down the fort. The pair turned in a quality performance in Chicago last weekend, combining for 114 yards on 25 carries and out-dueling the Bears’ Matt Forte.
But the 49ers are especially stingy against the run. They were a top-10 team in yards allowed per game and per carry last season, and despite losing several members of that team, they’ve picked up right where they left off. They looked especially good against Adrian Peterson in Week 1, limiting the 2012 league MVP to 31 yards on 10 carries. Will the Johnson & Johnson duo fare better than AP did?
3. Can the O-line continue its sack-less streak?
The Cardinals’ offensive line was so disastrous during preseason play that yours truly predicted it would prevent the team from making the playoffs. But after two weeks of regular-season play, the O-line has yet to allow a sack of Carson Palmer, marking the first time the Cardinals have not allowed a single sack in consecutive games since 2007.
Returning to the line this week is suspended tackle Bobby Massie (who may not get his starting job back due to the outstanding play of Earl Watford) and injured Pro Bowl guard Mike Iuapti, who was signed from the 49ers during the offseason. San Francisco recorded five sacks in its first two games; will the Cards’ O-line enjoy the same kind of success it had against New Orleans and Chicago?
ESPN’s Mike Sando once made this harsh but accurate comment: Bill Bidwill owns the Cardinals 363 days a year. The 49ers own them the other two days. Sando’s statement is six years old, but little has changed since 2009: The Cardinals have lost 10 of their last 12 meetings with the Niners, though the Cards did earn a 23-14 victory the last time they met at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Times have definitely changed: The Cardinals’ offense is more potent, and the Jim Harbaugh-less 49ers are no longer considered a playoff-caliber team. But San Fran still has plenty of weapons, including Kaepernick the Cardinal-Killer, and running back Carlos Hyde, who leads the NFL with 211 rushing yards.
Expect Palmer and the Cards to do enough Sunday, but don’t expect a simple path to victory. Kaepernick and the Niners won’t be quick to relinquish their ownership status over their division rivals.
Cardinals 27, 49ers 21