A 21-point lead was not enough for the San Francisco 49ers as they eventually fell victim to a 38-35 overtime loss against the San Diego Chargers in Week 16. Now, they'll play host to the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals in the final regular-season game of the 2014 season.
Spoiling the Cardinals' chances at climbing up the rungs of the NFC playoff picture might not be something the 49ers are overly concerned with.
A San Francisco loss in Week 17 would result in a higher draft pick next season. A Cardinals win, combined with a potential loss by the Seattle Seahawks, would reverse the division standings.
Plus, this contest presents an opportunity for the 49ers to rest some of their aging veterans and play younger, developing players with hopes of securing a legitimate role next season.
San Francisco may be forced to entertain this notion based on the number of injuries suffered in Week 16 and beforehand. The 49ers currently have 15 players on injured reserve. Nine more are listed as questionable for Sunday's matchup.
Among these players are cornerback Tramaine Brock and linebacker Ahmad Brooks—each of whom defensive coordinator Vic Fangio regarded as questionable per 49ers.com.
But injuries are only a part of what will be on topic for San Francisco this final week. All speculation points to head coach Jim Harbaugh being out of the job shortly after the game's conclusion. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported that it would be no longer than 48 hours afterwards.
That makes this Sunday the final contest in which Harbaugh will be at the helm of the 49ers if Glazer is correct.
The 49ers will not finish with an above-.500 record for the first time in the head coach's tenure with San Francisco. It's possible, perhaps likely, that the 49ers drop this contest. San Francisco hasn't endured a five-game losing streak since 2010, when Mike Singletary was the head coach.
Is that what will take place at Levi's Stadium on Sunday?
After a strong start to the season, the Cardinals are limping into the final regular-season contest having won just two of their last five games.
Arizona was embarrassed 35-6 by the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football, which had major implications for the postseason picture in the NFC.
Offensively, the Cardinals have struggled in many of the same aspects as the 49ers have. While San Francisco ranks No. 23 in the league with 4,844 total yards, Arizona is a mere 28th in the same category with 4,719.
Scoring points has also been a problem of late. Arizona hasn't scored more than 20 points since its Week 10 victory over the St. Louis Rams. The Cardinals are averaging 19.5 points per game, which puts them at 24th in the league. Comparatively, the 49ers are 26th with 19.1 points per contest.
Part of the problem has been, like San Francisco, the injury bug.
Running back Andre Ellington is on injured reserve, and backup running back Stepfan Taylor is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in his stead.
Quarterback consistency has also been an issue. Injuries to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton have forced head coach Bruce Arians' hand.
Per NFL.com, Arizona will start rookie quarterback Logan Thomas against San Francisco—marking the fourth different quarterback the Cardinals have started in 2014.
Defensively, the Cardinals are not the same team they were a year ago or at the beginning of the season. Injuries have also played a role here, but a 2013 defense that ranked No. 6 in the league in fewest yards allowed (5,079) now ranks No. 24 in the same category (5,496).
Moving the ball through the air has been especially effective against Arizona. The Cardinals are allowing an average of 264.2 passing yards per game.
Still, the Cardinals can boast of a pass rush. Defensive end Alex Okafor leads the team with eight sacks. Fellow end Calais Campbell is right behind him with seven. In all, Arizona boasts 34 sacks on the season. San Francisco also has the same number.
The Offense: Play for 60 Minutes
Not once this season has the 49ers offense put forth a full four-quarter effort. San Francisco has endured a multitude of second-half collapses on the offensive side of the ball.
The Week 16 loss against the Chargers was yet another example of this. The 49ers blew a 21-point lead, which, combined with critical injuries, allowed San Diego to get right back into contention.
There could be an argument to "let" Arizona win this game for the aforementioned benefits. But the competitive nature of the players and coaches suggests otherwise. After all, this could be the final game in a 49ers uniform for star veterans like running back Frank Gore and defensive end Justin Smith.
Let's start with Gore and his role on offense.
The 31-year-old veteran needs just 38 more rushing yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the eighth time in his storied career. Doing so against a tough Arizona run defense won't be easy, but establishing the running game will be a critical factor in giving the offense a chance to maintain any sort of consistency.
Plus, it's impossible to envision Gore not wanting to crest the mark.
A strong running game ultimately benefits quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The 27-year-old signal-caller needs this element as much as any QB in the league. A lackluster season from him is part of the reason why San Francisco's offense ranks No. 31 in the passing game with an average of 191.6 yards per contest.
Finishing with a better-than-average outing will be of importance to Kaepernick this offseason. It will help put to rest many of the questions surrounding whether he truly is the franchise guy moving forward.
The boost in confidence will help, and a strong outing could be a viable selling point for whoever winds up coaching the 49ers in 2015.
But Kaepernick's receiving targets may be slightly different against Arizona. In Week 16, the 49ers gave increased roles to depth receivers like Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton. Ellington posted two touchdowns during the contest before exiting with a hamstring injury.
Patton's role was less fortunate, as he eventually coughed up the overtime fumble, which led to San Diego's victory.
Still, getting these players involved will help paint a better picture regarding what the 49ers have in their future. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree could be gone after the season via free agency. So may wideout Brandon Lloyd.
But the largest factor for San Francisco will be to maintain the consistency over the entire game. There can't be one or two quarters of effectiveness followed by a complete absence on offense.
The Defense: Start Evaluating for 2015
The season is lost for San Francisco. But that doesn't mean this final game is useless.
Injuries have forced the issue to a point. So has the release of defensive end Ray McDonald. So what can the 49ers do defensively?
They can start by taking a look at players who could play pivotal roles in 2015.
Let's start by taking a look at the linebacker position—an area in which injuries have bit the 49ers hard. Injuries to Brooks and Chris Borland have opened up opportunities for other key players. Chief among these is rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch, who has already made a name for himself in his rookie year.
But we'll likely see plenty of linebacker Nick Moody on the inside—a start that will certainly help determine his 2015 role.
Then there is the defensive line.
McDonald's release after alleged involvement in a sexual assault case has opened up the door for backups like Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine. Jerod-Eddie may be further along developmentally than Carradine, but the pass-rushing future still lies with Carradine.
Smith's potential retirement, and the glaring hole left by McDonald, have forced this into serious-question status for San Francisco's front office this offseason.
|Projected 49ers Front Seven for Week 17|
|Tank Carradine||Left Defensive End||Mike Purcell|
|Quinton Dial||Nose Tackle||Mike Purcell|
|Justin Smith||Right Defensive End||Tony Jerod-Eddie|
|Aaron Lynch*||Left Outside Linebacker||Dan Skuta|
|Michael Wilhoite||Left Inside Linebacker||Desmond Bishop|
|Nick Moody||Right Inside Linebacker||Desmond Bishop|
|Aldon Smith||Right Outside Linebacker||Corey Lemonier|
|CBS Sports (* pending Ahmad Brooks' availability)|
The secondary also prompts questions that lead into the free-agency period.
Cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox are in contract years, so evaluating which one the 49ers should keep—perhaps both—will be necessary. The observation will also include rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson, who has flashed signs of brilliance despite being raw.
Thankfully, San Francisco's defense does not have to be evaluated against a top-tier opponent. It's also not vital that the 49ers win this game, which takes substantial pressure off of the players themselves.
San Francisco needs to give some younger, developing players a look. Week 17 presents a perfect opportunity.
Play Mistake-Free Football
Frequently paralleling the 49ers' 2014 in-game implosions has been a flurry of mistakes and errors that have ultimately influenced the outcome of each loss.
Whether it be three lost fumbles against San Diego in Week 17, two interceptions thrown by Kaepernick against Seattle in Week 13 or the widespread penalties in Week 3 against Arizona that handicapped the 49ers' efforts, costly mistakes have played a decisive factor in the outcome of this season.
True, this game means little to the 49ers aside from pride and potential 2015 roles. But honing the areas in which mistakes happen will be a benefit to the players who will be with this team next season.
A sharp game plan, smart execution and situational awareness will help eliminate many of the flaws San Francisco has revealed this year. It's never too early to start thinking about the best ways to avoid this in the future.
Even if the 49ers lose this bout, the team can make a worthy statement by playing a full four quarters of football without a multitude of mistakes and errors.
Whether this will happen is anyone's guess. But at least such an effort will put a strong cap on what has been a turbulent and troublesome season.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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