The trench battles will be on full display when the 49ers square off with the division-rival Cardinals.
San Francisco 49ers…Week 17…shot at a No. 1 playoff seed—welcome to the season of bold predictions for a NFL Super Bowl contender.
That's especially true of one that features the likes of Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith and even kicker Phil Dawson who all sit on the precipice of respective career highs.
Those notable stars join a 49ers team that travels to University of Phoenix Stadium for a divisional matchup with the Arizona Cardinals during the last week of the regular season.
Thanks to their epic win over the Atlanta Falcons in the “Candlestick Closeout,” the 49ers have a postseason berth already secured.
But that also doesn’t mean their final game is without legitimate pulse-pounding implications.
San Francisco can finish as low as the No. 6 seed and as high as the top playoff qualifier in the NFC.
Beating the Cardinals is the only way the latter possibility can materialize. And losing would push the Red and Gold toward a loathsome road of three straight away games on the path to "football’s Mecca."
So, for the purposes of this article, what really denotes bold? What are its inherent definitions and connotations?
- Not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger
- Not hesitating to break the rules of propriety
- Necessitating courage or daring; challenging
- Beyond the usual limits of conventional thoughts or action; imaginative
- Striking or conspicuous to the eye; flashy; showy
And more specifically, what will qualify as bold from these San Francisco 49ers?
Looks like it’s time to find out.
Hint: Our five predictions do not include any eye-catching typefaces or letter fonts. But they will align with each of the above definitions.
Note: All advanced statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Keeping Arizona out of the end zone will require stopping Andre Ellington (No. 38) in the backfield by Patrick Willis (No. 52) and Co.
Not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger…
The Cardinals average 27.6 points at home, without ever having produced fewer than three-touchdowns worth of scoreboard material.
They posted 22 against the top-two-rated defenses of the Seattle Seahawks (14.8 points) and Carolina Panthers (14.7 points). They then racked up a season-high 40 points against the Indianapolis Colts’ No. 12-ranked scoring unit (21.7 points).
Quarterback Carson Palmer has been particularly effective at home. He averages a 68.0 completion percentage within friendly confines, including two games with a plus-70 completion rate and a QBR above 93.
He has also thrown 10 touchdowns in seven home contests. Continually all-universe wideout Larry Fitzgerald has been on the receiving end for four of those scores.
Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington have contributed seven of their 11 rushing touchdowns at University of Phoenix Stadium as well.
While not quite existing in the same stratosphere as the Peyton Manning-charged offensive assault, Arizona’s contingent still packs a formidable punch.
So, how will the 49ers limit the Cardinals to roughly one-third of their season-scoring average?
Turn Jay Feely into the offensive MVP and relegate Palmer and Co. to the sideline.
San Francisco will unleash a defensive fury after giving up an unexpected 24 points last week.
It will piggyback off NaVorro Bowman’s game-clinching pick-six and generate six sacks, four interceptions and a fumble-return touchdown in its quest for a higher playoff seed.
The front seven working the trenches will collapse the pocket and storm the backfield against a Cardinals’ front line rated bottom-five in both run and pass blocking by Pro Football Focus.
The 49ers fifth-ranked run unit will smother Mendenhall and Ellington into sub-50-yard production and put the onus entirely on Palmer.
Arizona’s quarterback will then embody his inner gunslinger and launch four of his throws into the hands of 49ers defenders.
Well, at least when he isn’t landing on the turf beforehand.
And it’s not like Palmer hasn’t thrown that many interceptions in a game this season, not to mention two already to San Francisco in Week 6.
As for the specific 49ers keeping Arizona out of the end zone, let’s just say a variety of sources will emerge.
Bradley Sowell will find himself on the turf more often than not when matching up with Justin Smith.
Beyond the usual limits of conventional thoughts or action; imaginative…
Defensive tackle Justin Smith has discovered the fountain of youth at age 34.
Cornerback Tarell Brown has experienced the need for a late-season comeback.
And Aldon Smith is an entirely different person following holistic rehabilitation.
All three will power the 49ers defense in newfound ways on Sunday.
Justin Smith has seven sacks and 52 total quarterback pressures in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. He is just two away from a career high in the former.
San Francisco’s leader in the trenches will attain that statistical best against Cardinals left tackle Bradley Sowell.
Carson Palmer’s blindside protector has surrendered—coincidentally—seven sacks and 52 pressures this year. PFF grades him as a positional-worst in the NFL.
Unlikely numerical correlation notwithstanding, Smith will drive Sowell into the ground with one arm and take down Palmer with the other in his patented style on multiple occasions.
He will reach the nine-sack mark in dominant fashion indeed.
Aldon Smith, for his part, will capitalize on that powerful trench work by his partner in crime.
The outside linebacker will corral Palmer or any would-be ball-carrier in his usual efficient fashion.
Smith will stunt to the interior on his starting left side or will attack from the right against guard Paul Fanaika and tackle Eric Winston. This portion of the Cardinals line has allowed 14 sacks and is one of the lowest-rated by PFF in run blocking.
The top-seven Smith will add to that putrid standing with two more quarterback takedowns.
But this time No. 99 will create a strip-sack and run it all the way to touchdown paydirt for the first time in his young career.
Remember, Palmer and his blockers up front did not face this all-around force back in October.
They must now deal with a post-rehab Smith that operates with an unrivaled combination of speed, strength and sure-tackling abilities.
Good luck to anyone touching the ball for Arizona.
Lastly, the defensive back that will crush Palmer’s hope down the field is a player currently flying under the radar.
Brown has missed three games this year and has not shown up much in the box score when healthy. He does not have an interception to his name in what would qualify as the only time for Brown since entering the league in 2007, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Yet, the 49ers present No. 3 cornerback will realize his upper-depth-chart status with a monster two-pick day against the Cardinals.
He will equal his career-best in his post rib-injury state. He—and not team-interception leader Tramaine Brock—will do the most this time around in shutting down Arizona’s passing game over top.
Palmer will certainly target Fitzgerald and surging second-year wideout Michael Floyd often on the outside.
Brown, fortunately, will be there to stop them and make up for his early-season mistakes.
And for those wondering where the other two interceptions and sacks will come from?
Keep an eye on ball-hawking safety Eric Reid and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey.
The underrated rookie and former first-round bust, respectively, might just shatter the odds all by themselves.
Colin Kaepernick won't receive the same love in Arizona, but the 49ers franchise leader will still put on a show in unfriendly confines.
Not hesitating to break the rules of propriety…
Not only will the 49ers hold Arizona to no touchdowns, but they will also unload six of their own on the NFL’s sixth-best defense?
The same one that restricts opposing offenses to 20.1 points a game and 17 per at home?
In the spirit of bold prognostications—book it.
The 24th-ranked 49ers offense will indeed surpass its oft-maligned reputation.
A unit that has amassed point totals of three, seven and nine will shatter those regrettable aggregates. It will put on a performance more akin to the 34-point varietal in Week 1.
Both the rushing and passing attacks will compile over 200 yards and 14 points each.
Throw in Aldon Smith’s fumble-return touchdown and Phil Dawson’s 30th and new career-high 31st field goal and suddenly 41 points appear on the scoreboard.
Detractors shouting from the proverbial stands would cite a lack of necessity for the 49ers after producing an early-game lead as a major obstacle to this high score.
These hypothetical naysayers might also emphasize that this is the final week of the regular season. Why keep tacking it on instead of resting key starters in such a blowout?
Because this is a divisional matchup against a heated rival on its home turf. And because the 49ers can earn a first-round bye or even No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Those prospects will serve as sufficient motivation.
Knowing head coach Jim Harbaugh’s no-nonsense style, they can rest when they’re dead.
Let’s now move on to the “who” that will make this score possible.
49ers running back Frank Gore will leave any would-be Cardinals tacklers in his wake more often than not on Sunday.
Necessitating courage or daring; challenging…
There’s a reason why these seemingly mundane performances appear all the way at No. 2 on this list.
The Cardinals' run defense is a preeminent bunch as the league’s No. 1 unit. It stifles opposing rushing attacks to a paltry 84.5 yards per game.
The opposition has breached the end zone only five times all season via the ground.
Arizona features quite possibly the most impenetrable 3-4 fronts in all of football.
Defensive ends Calais Campbell (No. 7) and Darnell Docket (No. 16) are one of the more higher-rated duos per Pro Football Focus. They have 42 run stops between them.
Nose tackles Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu are also stout up the middle with 19 stops. They have induced those double-digit offensive failures despite playing in roughly one-fourth of their defense’s total snaps this year.
They’ve missed a whopping three tackles.
Coming back full circle, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will certainly have courage on their sides when they launch their daring assault on Arizona’s front line.
The 49ers’ dynamic one-two punch of power and quickness will defy the odds with their game-long production.
Gore will smash his way through the defense in his uncanny low-to-the-ground style. He’ll continually welcome the punishing contact, patiently grinding it out until adding to his third-leading rushes of 15 or more yards (17).
One of those carries will bring Gore into the end zone. Another will materialize closer to the goal line for his career-high 11th rushing touchdown of the season.
No. 21 will collect his second 101-yard total against the Cardinals by game’s end.
Hunter, meanwhile, will accumulate his own career-best 90 yards from the backfield.
His surgery-enhanced breakaway speed will facilitate just the second run-gain of 40-plus yards surrendered by Arizona’s defense this season.
Welcome, 2013 Cardinals, to the first time you’ve allowed a 100-yard rusher, two rushing scores and over 200 total yards on the ground—all in the same game.
And that’s not even accounting for what the fastest quarterback in the league will do (minus a certain non-injured Olympic sprinter in Washington).
Speaking of which…
Tight end Vernon Davis will make his acquaintance with the end zone two more times in Week 17.
Striking or conspicuous to the eye; flashy; showy…
Headlines and definition derivatives don’t get any more self-explanatory than the two mentioned above.
Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis will forge their collective abilities into an epic showcase on the gridiron this weekend.
To that end, Kaepernick will dismiss his leg-driven talent in favor of his powerful arm.
The 49ers franchise quarterback will produce the first 300-yard passing output of his two-plus regular-season years in the NFL (minus his 412-yard outing in Week 1). He will do so by completing 65 percent of his passes to a host of dangerous outside weapons.
The most noteworthy—of course—being his lightning-quick tight end.
Davis, for his part, will one-up his performance from Week 6.
He will amass nine catches for 181 yards and two scores in Round 2 of 49ers vs. Cardinals. He will establish a career-high 14 touchdowns and maintain his personal-best of 16.4 yards per reception.
Personnel changes for both teams will help this deadly tandem attain their respective marks.
Unlike the opening matchup, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham will now occupy Cardinals defenders underneath and outside the numbers.
They—along with chain-moving master Anquan Boldin—will gobble up ample yardage and help create single-coverage opportunities for their pass-catching teammate.
Davis, then, will likely have free reign down the seams against the recently inserted Tony Jefferson—an undrafted and rather untested rookie free agent.
Phenomenal first-year cover man Tyrann Mathieu (knee) is on injured reserve. Starting free safety Rashad Johnson is still dealing with a high ankle sprain as well and is uncertain for this game, according to SB Nation.
Either way, Yeremiah Bell—the safety manning the strong side of the field—has already allowed two touchdowns in coverage to Davis this year, per Pro Football Focus.
Overall, Kaepernick, Davis, Crabtree, Boldin, Manningham, Gore and Hunter will pace a 500-yard day by the 49ers offense.
Tarell Brown and the “Smith Brothers” will hold the Cardinals to under 300 total yards as part of a masterful effort by San Francisco’s defense.
Even kicker Phil Dawson will leave the field basking in his own personal glory.
The 49ers—from offense to defense to special teams—will conclude the 2013 regular season in grand, career-making fashion.
Here’s to the playoffs and a Happy New Football Year.
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