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With their last-minute victory over Atlanta, San Francisco has set themselves up for Week 17’s matchup in Arizona in an enviable position. Having already clinched a playoff berth, the 49ers are one win away from clinching at least the top wild-card slot and still have a chance to earn the division title and the bye week that comes with it, should Seattle slip up.
On the other hand, a loss in the desert could see the 49ers falling to the sixth and final seed, knowing they would have to win three games on the road to get back to the Super Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals, of course, are in desperation mode, needing a win and help to avoid being this year’s Chicago Bears—an unfortunate team with double-digit wins that still ends up missing the playoffs. They’ll be pulling out all the stops to try to pull the mild upset.
Here are five key matchups to watch as the 49ers close out their regular season.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise specified.
LT Joe Staley vs. RE Calais Campbell
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Calais Campbell has been, by a significant margin, the most productive player on Arizona’s team this season. In addition to his eight official sacks, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has him graded out with two more sacks, 17 total quarterback hits, and 35 more quarterback hurries.
He’s been a force in the run game, as well, with 34 “stops”—solo tackles which result in a failure by the offense. Some of those are his sacks, of course, but many more involve him hitting a running back before he manages to break through to the second level. He’s one of the top 3-4 ends in football, and the leader of Arizona’s front seven.
Putting him against Joe Staley is matching strength for strength—Staley’s been the most consistent 49er this season and has once again been key to San Francisco’s offensive success. It’s not only the most important matchup of this game—it’s one of the most interesting matchups across the NFL in Week 17.
In the Week 6 matchup between the two teams, Campbell was mostly held in check—he did bring Colin Kaepernick down for a sack but not much more than that, before being carted off with a scary neck injury toward the end of the game.
Since then, however, Campbell has gone on a tear—in their upset win over Seattle last week, Campbell brought Russell Wilson down twice, and the week before hit or hurried Ryan Fitzpatrick seven times. If Campbell is left unchecked, he’s absolutely capable of running down a scrambling Kaepernick or catching Frank Gore in the backfield—all the more important, then, for Staley to win his one-on-one matchup with Campbell.
It’ll be hard to keep him off the stat sheet entirely, but Staley had a fantastic day back in Week 6 and could easily repeat that performance this week.
LB NaVorro Bowman vs. RB Andre Ellington
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Andre Ellington has been one of the surprises of the season so far—the sixth-round rookie, working out of a timeshare in the Cardinal backfield with Rashard Mendenhall, has seen his workload increase as the year has gone on, to very positive results.
Ellington is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has added a bit of a lightning element to Mendenhall’s more plodding thunder. He is especially dangerous when he gets out into space—on runs around either end, Ellington has racked up 273 yards on only 32 carries, an average of 8.5 yards a shot. Why Mendenhall has gotten more of the work on the ground is something of a minor mystery.
Ellington only played about half the snaps in the Week 6 matchup, but in limited action, he showed how explosive he is capable of being. His seven carries saw him rush for 56 yards, including two runs for over 10 yards each, with one of those ending up in the end zone. He’s a fast, shifty back, in the mold of a Darren Sproles or a Reggie Bush. He’s a dynamic, playmaking threat.
Both middle linebackers will be on Ellington-stopping duty, but of the two, NaVorro Bowman has struggled more against running backs this season, meaning he’s the one I’ll be looking to step up as we enter the postseason.
Going into the Atlanta game, Pro Football Focus had graded Patrick Willis at plus-5.3 in the run game, with Bowman down at minus-0.6—perhaps a problem for someone who has been asked to enter run defense so often this year, on nearly 40 percent of his snaps.
This is a bit of a one-year aberration; Bowman was graded at plus-12.4 last season and plus-19.1 the year before that, so it’s not like he’s a weak run defender—he’s just been more inconsistent this season than he has in the past. Bowman had a relatively bland day against Arizona last time out, recording only four tackles. It would be nice to see him continue his recent string of big days entering the postseason.
CB Carlos Rogers vs. WR Larry Fitzgerald
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For football fans, it’s been nice to see Larry Fitzgerald paired with a semi-competent quarterback for what seems like the first year in ages.
While he’s not back to the 1,000-yard production he had every year from 2007-2011, he’s back to double-digit touchdowns and is over his last year’s receiving-yard total already. Opposing defensive coordinators, of course, would prefer if Fitzgerald hadn’t bounced back to form quite so much.
The majority of Fitzgerald’s work has been over the middle of the field in 2013.
In passes between the numbers, Fitzgerald has caught 48 passes on 72 targets for 588 yards and six touchdowns, with 225 of those yards coming after the catch. He’s been particularly potent short, where he’s catching 78.3 percent of balls thrown his way as he exploits slant routes and short ins. That’s where he’s been a threat.
He had a big statistical day against the 49ers back in Week 6, amassing 117 yards on six receptions, but that’s somewhat misleading.
He was targeted 11 times, with 75 of those yards coming on one amazing play. Fitzgerald caught a short pass in route and saw both Tramaine Brock and Donte Whitner whiff on tackles at the spot Fitzgerald caught the ball. If they had not missed there, Fitzgerald’s would have been held to under 50 yards.
Carlos Rogers will likely draw the lion’s share of Fitzgerald in coverage once again—in the first matchup, he was targeted four times against Fitzgerald, with Fitzgerald catching three for 29 yards and Rogers catching the other one for an interception.
Rogers has not had his best season in coverage, allowing receivers to catch 60.3 percent of balls thrown their way for an average of 10.7 yards per catch, and, as such, has played himself into conversations as a cap-casualty next season. Rogers would love to have a repeat of his solid day in Week 6 against Fitzgerald, but he may be someone whom the Cardinals can target and exploit, considering his performance the rest of the season.
CB Tramaine Brock vs. WR Michael Floyd
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Of course, the top receiver in Arizona this season hasn’t been Fitzgerald—Michael Floyd leads the team with 950 yards for an average of 16.1 yards per reception. Essentially, with Fitzgerald doing his best work short and over the middle, Floyd’s been targeted more down the field, with nearly 70 percent of his targets occurring more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Floyd’s had some big days in the latter half of the season—he was one yard short of three consecutive 100-yard receiving days in Weeks 11-13 and has developed into a key weapon in only his second year in the NFL.
Brock, of course, has burst onto the scene, first taking the nickel cornerback slot from Nnamdi Asomugha, and then the starting role when Tarell Brown went down with an injury. All he’s done with the opportunities is become the sixth-highest rated cornerback in football, according to Pro Football Focus.
He’s been particularly impressive in preventing yards after the catch. If you take out the one 75-yard reception by Fitzgerald in the Week 6 matchup, Brock would be averaging less than 2.2 YAC—if you catch it, you’re likely to be stopped right where you were.
Back in Week 6, Brock was just the nickel cornerback and found himself all over the field. Because it included the 75-yard touchdown, his stats show five receptions for 104 yards against him, an inflated number but, still, not his best day by a long shot.
Floyd, on the other hand, saw Brock and Brown split coverage duties against him. He was targeted four times against those two cornerbacks and caught all four passes, albeit only for 44 yards.
With Brown still being slowly worked in, expect Brock to see a lot more coverage with Floyd deep. If the Cardinals want to win this matchup, they’ll likely need a bomb or two to Floyd to open up some scoring.
TE Vernon Davis vs. LB Karlos Dansby
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In the first matchup between San Francisco and Arizona, the Cardinals tried slowing down Vernon Davis with free safety Yeremiah Bell, which didn’t work out swimmingly. Covered by Bell, Davis was targeted five times, pulling in four catches for 108 yards and two scores.
Suffice it to say if that happens again, the Cardinals chances of winning are slim to none. Jerraud Powers and Daryl Washington also struggled to contain Davis, allowing three more receptions for another 66 yards.
Then you had Karlos Dansby. Dansby only dropped into coverage 19 times against the 49ers, but that was the most of any non-defensive back, and he often found himself matched up against Davis. The results were three targets but only one reception for six yards. Compared to the numbers the rest of the team were putting up, that might qualify as a minor miracle.
The Cardinals haven’t been that horrible recently against tight ends—they’re ranked 19th in the league by Football Outsiders. They certainly struggled early in the season, allowing big days to Davis, Jared Cook, and Jimmy Graham, just to name three, but they’ve brought that back to only poor, instead of disastrous, as they’ve made their late season surge.
They have also not been too bad against Davis. His 180 yards in Week 6 were the high water mark for this season, certainly—but last year, Davis was held to 39 yards against the Cardinals in both their matchups. The 180 yards was a disturbing outlier—one they absolutely cannot allow to happen again.
Dansby’s been their top cover linebacker this season, and considering how poorly everyone else handled Davis last time out, they could turn to him to try to slow Davis down. Davis was held without a catch against Atlanta, so it’s certainly possible—and perhaps the biggest key to Arizona’s success in this game.