The San Francisco 49ers aim to finish off the year strong, beginning with their Week 16 divisional rematch against the playoff-hopeful Arizona Cardinals. There are a number of storylines for the 49ers heading into Saturday, including the return of one of San Francisco's star players.
To discuss the Week 16 matchup, 49ers.com is joined by Tracy Sandler of FanGirl Sports Network. Sandler has been covering the 49ers since 2014. Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:
First Down: What is the Top Storyline Heading into Saturday
@KeianaMartinTV – Can the 49ers Spoil the Cardinals Postseason
It's a tight race for the seventh seed in the NFC. This year, the NFL expanded the postseason to include seven teams from each conference by adding two wild card teams, with Arizona currently occupying the final spot. Arizona could secure a postseason berth for the first time in five years with a win in Week 16.
However, San Francisco has the chance to ruin their hopes with a victory and help from their NFC counterparts. The Chicago Bears can sneak their way into the seventh seed with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. A Bears win and a Cardinals loss could certainly shake up the NFC playoff picture.
But regardless of what's occurring around the conference, the 49ers have their sights on finishing out the season strong. That begins with getting their first win at their new "home" against their divisional rivals.
@49ersFanGirl – A Road/Home Matchup
This one is not super analysis driven, but how often do we get to see two home teams at the same game? The 49ers are the road team in this game and the Cardinals are the home team, but State Farm Stadium has been San Francisco's home for the last several weeks and will be again next weekend. So, I do think there's something kind of interesting to that. In a 2020 season that has seen so many oddities and things that we weren't expecting, how often do you have two home teams playing in the same game?
Second Down: How Can the 49ers Wounded Defense Continue to Exceed Expectations vs. Kyler Murray
@KeianaMartinTV – Added Pressure Leading to Murray's Mistakes
The 49ers will certainly be re-watching the film from that season opener against the Cardinals where Arizona put up over 400 yards of offense on a fully healthy San Francisco defense. Fifteen weeks later, San Francisco is dealing with a host of injuries heading into the matchup, in particular, on the defense. Richard Sherman, Jimmie Ward and Javon Kinlaw all appeared on the week's injury report, with the chance of missing Saturday's matchup.
San Francisco may need to look to their backups to slow down Murray and Co., which can be done. In the Cardinals Week 13 matchup against the Rams, Los Angeles held Arizona's offense to 140 yards passing and just 92 yards on the ground. Much of the Cardinals woes came by way of turnovers. The Rams forced two turnovers on Murray: a fumble and a pick-six.
San Francisco has forced eight turnovers over their past five games. If San Francisco's pass rush can generate pressure and force Murray into uncomfortable situations, it's possible the 49ers can come out on the positive side of the turnover battle.
@49ersFanGirl – Limiting DeAndre Hopkins
At full strength, even last year when this defense was almost unstoppable, they had a lot of trouble with mobile quarterbacks. And we saw it in Week 1. With that being said, when we've talked to Robert Saleh this week and some of the players on defense, they do have a little bit of the added benefit of having played them in Week 1, and we're in Week 16. So, they've seen a lot of film and probably have seen most of everything that Arizona is going to throw at them. It's going to come down to Kyler Murray, who rushed for 91 yards against the 49ers defense in Week 1. He's just very elusive. He has that Russell Wilson elusiveness. He can escape and scramble. He can not only extend plays with his legs, but he can also make plays with his legs, and that is definitely very dangerous.
I do think they may have a slightly better chance of containing DeAndre Hopkins, who had 14 receptions for 151 yards in that Week 1 game. That's an incredible performance that he's probably not going to repeat. And I think that's a place where San Francisco's secondary may have a little more success because now they've played him before and they have film of him in this offensive scheme. So, I think they may have a little bit more success there. They're also going to have to deal with Larry Fitzgerald. It's not going to be easy, but this defense, despite the injuries, has managed to keep the 49ers in the game week after week. What they need is for the offense to give them a little bit of a boost and give them a little bit of help.
Third Down: Reasonable Expectations for C.J. Beathard
@KeianaMartinTV – Beathard Doubles Performance From 2018 Matchup
Beathard is set to make his first start since Week 8 of the 2018 season, which just so happened to be a road contest against... the Arizona Cardinals. Divine intervention. In that matchup, the quarterback was limited to just 14-of-28 passes for 190 yards and one score in the 49ers low-scoring loss. It's a vastly different looking team than when the quarterback last made a start, but there are a few familiar faces who the signal caller has built a rapport with. Kendrick Bourne led the 49ers in that matchup with 71 yards on seven receptions. The next receiver? Tight end, and former Hawkeyes teammate George Kittle, who caught five passes for 57 yards.
Now with four seasons under his belt to study and fully grasp Kyle Shanahan's offense, why can't the quarterback double his production in his return to State Farm Stadium? I foresee Beathard throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns with a passing attack that benefits from the return of Kittle.
@49ersFanGirl – Turnover-free Performance
I would say a reasonable expectation is that he doesn't turn the ball over. Turnovers have absolutely killed this 49ers team. That's what's lost these recent games. If the defense can play well and C.J. can protect the football and drive the offense down the field, I think they have a really good chance. But that to me is a reasonable expectation. The playoff picture is done for San Francisco for this season. They have dealt with injury after injury. They've had to move to another city. There has been all of the COVID stuff. So, I think in these next two games, what you want to see is a more efficient and improved offense that can get in the red zone, score and not turn the ball over. So, I would say, C.J. leading a clean, efficient football game.
Fourth Down: Matchup You're Looking Forward to Most?
Selfishly, I want to see Aiyuk string together a strong finish to his rookie season, so he will continue to be my must-see weekly matchup. Aiyuk has been the bright spot of the 49ers offense and the go-to target of Nick Mullens down the stretch.
Aiyuk has registered 733 yards receiving on 59 receptions and seven total touchdowns this season while appearing in 11 games. His 733 yards are the third-most by a rookie in franchise history, creeping up on teammate Deebo Samuel, who took over the No. 2 spot last season with 802 yards in 2019.
His ceiling remains high, and I want to see the rookie cap off his first season setting franchise records, which means surpassing the mark set by Hall-of-Fame wideout Jerry Rice.
@49ersFanGirl – Kittle vs. Baker
I always love the George Kittle-Budda Baker matchup. You have two very physical, very intense, really good football players going against each other. And I just like that matchup. I like that they're super physical on the field, but then off the field, it's "great game" and "way to go." Also, it will be real fun just to see Kittle back on the field for San Francisco, even if they're not fighting for a playoff spot in these last couple of games. It will still be so much fun to see it.