Tonight might be the biggest mismatch of the Arizona Cardinals' season thus far, at least as far as stats are concerned. The San Francisco 49ers are 7-0, and they're top contenders in the NFC boasting a deeply talented and deep roster. Even if they're a division rival, it must be acknowledged that to this point in the season the 49ers have looked like an absolute juggernaut.
The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, are likely still a few key pieces away from competing. I've liked the progress many players have shown on the field (Kyler Murray stands out), and the trade for Kenyan Drake is a move I think will serve Arizona's offense well while waiting for stud runningback duo David Johnson and Chase Edmonds to recover.
Do the home-team Cardinals have a chance at getting what would arguably be the upset of the season thus far? Let's get into some bold predictions for Tonight's divisional matchup.
1. Visitors off to a slow start
Divisional games are usually bloodbaths. The teams know each other inside and out, and they hate losing to one another.
That said, these two teams have almost never met before. Due to injuries, the Cardinals defense never faced a Jimmy Garoppolo-led offense. And during the offseason (and the regular season, with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders) they've upgraded at several key positions and added key performers such as Nick Bosa through the draft.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have a new coach, a new philosophy, and a new offense. This team is significantly better than last year's team, and I expect a few wrinkles and surprises which will take their division rival off guard- especially early on.
I predict the Cardinals will take the lead with a touchdown to start the scoring.
2. Kyler Murray continues to produce
The number one overall draft pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Kyler Murray, has looked well worth the selection thus far. He's improved in every game he's played and shown flashes of absolute brilliance, especially when given time.
Kyler may find himself short of time against a stout 49ers defensive front which has held opposing teams to less than 100 yards rushing total, and generated nearly four sacks per game in their seven contests. The 49ers secondary has allowed only 128 yards to opposing passers. That said, they haven't faced a passer this season quite like Kyler Murray.
Murray brings a quiet confidence to the team. He's a big time thrower and excels at protecting the football. He may find himself struggling to complete passes, but I think the Cardinals offense can find some sort of rhythm against an excellent 49ers defense with their quick tempo. I believe our rookie quarterback will show up against one of the defensive titans of the NFC.
I predict Kyler Murray will run for a touchdown and pass for a touchdown in Thursday night's game.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo's struggles
There's no doubt that Jimmy Garoppolo is a good quarterback, and little doubt as to whether he could become a great one. He's talented and can make all the throws, but he is also turnover-prone (as is expected early in a quarterback's career).
The Arizona defense may not be among the league's best this season, but the unit still boasts some special playmakers. I think Chandler Jones will get an opportunity for one of his signature forced fumble/fumble recoveries, and players such as Byron Murphy (who will be targeted a lot with Patrick Peterson on the other side) might have their chances to come down with a ball of their own.
I predict the Arizona defense will recover a forced fumble and intercept Jimmy Garoppolo in front of the raucous fans in State Farm Stadium.
4. Kenyan Drake will contribute immediately
Kenyan Drake is an intriguing prospect to add to the roster, for the cost of (at most) a 5th round pick. The former Miami Dolphin arrives at a time of desperate need at the position, and I believe he will be a fit for this Arizona offense.
Drake has a 4.6 yards-per-carry average over his career, which is respectable. Even better for Kliff Kingsbury's often pass-centric offense, he's also averaged 8.1 yards-per-catch as a receiver out of the backfield. He may be just what this Cardinals offense needs to keep the 49ers on their toes.
I predict Kenyan Drake will finish the day with over 100 yards from scrimmage.
5. The end of an era?
To find the last time the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, one would have to go back as far as December of 2014. The Cardinals have handed the 49ers eight- that's right, eight-straight losses in their divisional matchups over the past four years. It's the sort of dominance rarely seen in football; even last year's woeful Cardinals defeated the 49ers twice en route to three total wins.
It's highly unlikely, given the state of these two teams, that this streak continues. It would be bolder of me to predict its continuation, but so much has to break Arizona's way for it to happen. I believe the Cardinals are a much better team than last year, and their progress is visible on the field and in the stats. That said, the quality of their opponent may be too much to overcome.
I predict the 49ers will defeat the Cardinals for the first time in four years, by a score of 30-20. I believe Arizona's defense will put up a good fight against a rushing attack averaging over 180 yards per game, and Kyler Murray and company will show out against a defense allowing an average of 11 points per game.
I wish I had happier predictions for Arizona, but alas, it may be the end of one of the strangest and most niche eras of sports dominance we have ever seen.
Want to read up more on the game before Thursday? Check out this analysis of the rivalry between the Cardinals and Saints, or check out the 49er Maven's perspective on where the Cardinals are at ahead of their matchup.