The 49ers have a clear opportunity to take control of the NFC West in front of them when they face the Cardinals at Estadio Azteca
San Francisco can move to 6-4 and to the top of the division courtesy of its head-to-head record against the Seahawks with a win in Mexico City in primetime.
Victory would also see the 49ers move to 4-0 in the division, putting them in an excellent position to reach the postseason as NFC West champions.
But the Cardinals have won three of the last four meetings and have continually proven tricky opposition for the Niners. Even with Colt McCoy set to deputize for Kyler Murray at quarterback for Arizona, there may be some reason for concern about a potential upset for a San Francisco team that has already suffered a couple in 2022.
Here we look at the keys to the 49ers avoiding a shock loss and taking command of the division.
Take away the easy buttons
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With McCoy under center, the 49er defense obviously won’t have to worry as much as about being confounded by the quarterback run as it would with Murray in the game.
However, McCoy still has several potential easy buttons he can hit, DeAndre Hopkins being chief among them.
Hopkins will be McCoy’s primary passing outlet, and asking Charvarius Ward and the 49er secondary to take him away completely will be a tall order. Yet with a composed defensive approach, San Francisco can look to limit his secondary options.
Having seen the likes of the Rams and the Falcons have success with the screen game against San Francisco, Arizona will surely look to target the likes on Rondale Moore and James Conner on such plays to gain cheap yardage and stay ahead of the sticks.
The 49ers must attempt to quickly remove that from equation and ask McCoy to consistently make throws downfield. McCoy proved he is capable of leading his team to victory against the Rams and has done so previously versus San Francisco, but this is a stronger 49er defense than he faced last year, and putting the onus on him to make increasingly difficult throws to keep the Cardinals in the game is a key ingredient a Niners win in Mexico.
Be ruthless in the red zone
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The red zone continues to be an area of struggle for the 49ers, who went two of five inside the 20-yard line in their win over the Chargers last week.
It has been a story of continued failures of execution for the 49ers inside the congested area, but a meeting with the Cardinals should be a get right game in that respect.
Arizona’s defense has given up a touchdown on 27 of the 40 red zone drives it has allowed in 2022, with their opponents’ red zone touchdown efficiency of 67.5 percent the fifth-highest in the NFL.
San Francisco should have little problem moving the ball against a defense that is the worst in the league by dropback Success Rate and 19th in the NFL in rush Success Rate, per rbsdm.com.
But moving the ball is only half the battle and, to limit the likelihood of McCoy keeping the Cardinals in contention, the 49ers must not give Arizona the chance to hang around. Opportunities to score figure to be plentiful, and it is imperative the Niners take them.
Limit the mistakes
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McCoy and the Cardinals triumphed at Levi’s Stadium primarily because the 49ers could not get out of their own way, losing two fumbles in a game in which they were beaten by two scores and going just four of 10 on third down.
This season, the 49ers are one of the best offenses in the NFL on third down, converting at the sixth-highest rate (45.6%) in the league, but the mistakes reared their head against the Chargers.
Brandon Aiyuk fumbled and dropped a would-be touchdown in the red zone, the 49ers had a punt blocked and Elijah Mitchell slipped on what would likely have been a walk-in touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
The Niners were able to overcome those mistakes and clinch victory over Los Angeles on the back of their excellent defense. Still, division games can often be tense affairs, and the 49ers risk making this matchup more difficult than it needs to be if they cannot play a clean game.
San Francisco is the better team and, provided the 49ers avoid the errors that allow inferior opposition to close the gap, they should underline their superiority in relatively comfortable fashion.