With their slim playoff hopes barely alive, the Arizona Cardinals look to benefit from facing the only NFC team already eliminated from the postseason race as they host the San Francisco 49ers at Sun Devil Stadium.
However, the Cardinals are also the only team to the lose to the hapless Niners this year, suffering a 31-28 overtime loss in San Francisco on Oct. 10.
After dropping its first three games of the season, Arizona won four of its next six to move into the thick of the NFC wild-card race. But the Cardinals enter Sunday with their second three-game skid of the season after last week’s 26-12 road loss to the Detroit Lions.
Rookie John Navarre struggled mightily in his NFL debut, throwing four interceptions and completing just 18-of-40 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. Navarre broke his right ring finger, and the Cardinals will start Josh McCown against San Francisco.
“When you lose three in a row, it’s tough, and a win is always the cure-all for that week,” McCown said. “It always makes everybody feel better, so that’s what I’m focused on.”
McCown’s last start came in Arizona’s last win, a 17-14 victory over the New York Giants on November 14. Arizona’s defense was a big reason for that victory as the 25-year-old McCown was just 12-of-24 for 90 yards.
Coach Dennis Green elected to start Shaun King the next week, but the former Buccaneer was ineffective in losses to the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets. King threw three interceptions against the Panthers, and was just 14-of-26 for 119 yards against the Jets before being replaced by McCown in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been playing with all three of our quarterbacks in practice long enough to know what their patterns are and what their strengths are,” said tight end Freddie Jones, who had a 33-yard touchdown reception against Detroit. “We just have to make sure that we’re on the same page.”
While the Cardinals have struggled to get their passing game in gear, they also have been unable to consistently move the ball on the ground.
Larry Croom, an undrafted rookie from Nevada-Las Vegas, made his first career start against Detroit and had just 49 yards on 18 carries. Emmitt Smith had started each of Arizona’s first 11 games, but sat out with a toe injury Sunday. The NFL’s all-time leading rusher may miss a second straight game, but Green was enthused by what he saw from Croom.
“Croom was very close to breaking a couple of plays,” Green said. “I think if he just had a little bit more room, a little better blocking, there were two or three shoe-string tackles where guys dove and got him after he got two or maybe three yards that could have popped into a 10 to 15-yard gain. He’s very, very much a competitor, and did a good job picking up a couple of blitzes.”
San Francisco has lost seven straight since a 31-28 overtime win over Arizona on October 10. The Niners are trying to avoid losing 12 games for the first time since going 2-14 in 1979, their first year under Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
The Niners have scored just 26 points in their last three games, including a 16-6 loss to St. Louis last week. Tim Rattay was just 10-of-21 for 121 yards and an interception. He also was sacked four times and suffered a partially torn fascia muscle in his right foot that will keep him sidelined against the Cardinals.
Ken Dorsey will make his fourth start of the season in Rattay’s place. Dorsey has thrown four interceptions and no touchdowns while amassing a 53.9 rating in five games this season.
San Francisco’s struggles have been especially tough on running back Kevan Barlow, who also will sit out Sunday with a concussion. Barlow, who ran for 1,024 yards last season while splitting playing time with Garrison Hearst, has just 629 yards and six touchdowns this season. Barlow is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, which is last among all NFL starters.
“This last year, they couldn’t wait to get Garrison Hearst out of here because they wanted me to play, and now they’re trying to push me out of here,” Barlow said. “I know a lot of people in the Bay Area are spoiled from the past with Joe Montana and stuff like that, but hopefully we’ll get things moving again. I’m having not a great year, but things are going to turn around.”
Maurice Hicks, an undrafted free agent from North Carolina A&T, will make his first start in place of Barlow. Hicks, who was on the practice squad until last month, has rushed for 144 yards and one touchdown in five games while also returning kicks.
“They’ve both played. It’s not like they haven’t played,” Niners coach Dennis Erickson said of Dorsey and Hicks. “Maurice is going to have to carry the load. That’s something he hasn’t done before.”