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Golden chance for an upset: Why the Cardinals will beat the 49ers on Sunday

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Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals
Golden Rosen is one of the keys to an upset on Sunday.
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The 0-4 Cardinals will be 4-point underdogs when they travel to San Francisco this weekend to take on the 1-3 49ers. On the surface, it makes perfect sense, as the Cardinals have looked like the worst team in football to start the season. We’re the only team without a win, dead last in scoring and total yardage, and second-to-last in rushing defense. Plus, we’re on the road against a chippy 49ers team that nearly upset the Chargers last weekend. That sounds like a recipe for a loss.

But a deeper dive into the stats (thanks to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings and Pro Football Focus’s grades/rankings) and a closer look at each team’s QB situation reveals that an upset is quite possible in the Golden Gate City on Sunday. So, how can the Cardinals notch their first win of the season? Let’s find out.

QB Comparison

Cardinals rookie QB Josh Rosen will make his second career start on Sunday. In his first start, he nearly led the Cardinals to victory, and he guided them to their highest-scoring game of the young season. (That it was only 17 points says everything you need to know about the Sam Bradford/Mike McCoy offense.)

His stat line doesn’t exactly jump out of the box score (15/27, 180 yards, 1 TD, no picks), but his performance was actually Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded rookie QB performance since they began grading players in 2006. His Total QBR was also an excellent 80.4. If our coaching staff truly unleashes him, and our receivers actually learn how to catch the ball, we might have a true QB stud on our hands. (Count me surprised that it’s possibly happening this early in his career.)

The 49ers will be starting 2017 3rd-round pick C.J. Beathard. He did next to nothing in 6 games last season (55% completion, 4 TDs/6 INTs), but he actually put up decent numbers against a talented Chargers defense last week (23/37, 298 yards, 2 TDs/2 INTs). However, his Total QBR was a lowly 21.1, suggesting those were empty numbers. Beathard has looked okay, but 49ers fans will likely be pining for Jimmy Garoppolo’s return in 2019 sooner rather than later.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals will have an advantage at the game’s most important position on Sunday. Let’s hope our coaching staff can figure out how to take advantage.

Cardinals Offense vs. 49ers Defense

As far as these two units go, the surface stats line up with the analytical findings: the Cardinals offense has been one of the worst in football and the 49ers defense is below average. In raw yardage, the Cardinals rank #32 in total yards, #31 in passing yards, and #31 in rushing yards. (Yikes.) Per DVOA, the Cardinals rank #31 in total offensive efficiency (ahead of the Bills… yay!), #30 in passing efficiency, and #31 in rushing efficiency. For the 49ers, they rank #20 in raw yards and #22 in defensive DVOA, with their rush defense ranking as above average and their pass defense as below average by both metrics.

However, these Cardinals numbers were mostly compiled with Sam Bradford under center. It stands to reason that our offense will improve as Rosen gets more comfortable at the helm. I’d wager we finish closer to 20 than 32 in DVOA by the end of the season. (Especially if we #firemikemccoy. Can we get this hashtag trending, Bird Gang?) Plus, Richard Sherman (PFF’s #7-ranked CB in 2018) is likely out with an injury on Sunday. We could be primed for a breakout offensive performance.

Bottom Line: Our offense isn’t as bad as the stats indicate, and the 49ers defense is nothing special. We should get a season-best performance on Sunday.

Cardinals Defense vs. 49ers Offense

The surface stats and the analytical findings deviate a bit with these two units, however. In raw yardage, the Cardinals defense ranks #18 in total yards against, #11 in passing defense, and #31 in rushing defense. But per DVOA, they’re actually ranked #11 defensive efficiency, #11 in pass defense efficiency, and #18 in rush defense efficiency. For the 49ers, the raw numbers say they’re the #12 offense in total yards, #21 in passing yards, and #6 in rushing yards. But per DVOA, they’re one of the worst offenses in football at #28 in offensive efficiency, #27 in passing efficiency, and #18 in rushing efficiency.

So what looks like the #6 rushing attack versus the #31 run defense on paper is actually much more evenly matched when considering the analytics—#18 versus #18. And keep in mind that the bigger advantage in the passing game (#27 versus #11 by efficiency, #21 versus #11 by raw yardage) should be even more pronounced when you take into account that these numbers were mostly compiled with Garoppolo under center. Plus the 49ers’ nominal #1 WR, Marquise Goodwin, is questionable for Sunday. I like our matchups here as well.

Bottom Line: These two units are fairly evenly matched, but the matchups could be in our favor when taking into account that the 49ers are playing their backup QB. Starting to smell an upset yet?

Special Teams

Both teams are in the bottom five per DVOA. (Guess who’s ranked dead last? Hint: Their coach is a familiar name.) So whoever makes the fewest mistakes will have the advantage. Expect plenty of missed FGs, muffed punts, blown coverages, and penalties. This one likely won’t be pretty from a special teams perspective.

Bottom Line: All I’m going to say is that I hope there is no reason to talk about Phil Dawson on Monday. A long Christian Kirk return would be nice though.

Final Thoughts

The Cardinals have swept the 49ers the last three seasons. If this were a Sam Bradford/Jimmy Garoppolo matchup, I’d predict that 6-game win streak to end. However, I think we have the advantage in this Josh Rosen/C.J. Beathard duel, and the analytics favor us in several other phases of the game.

All of which leads me to think this is the week we end the losing streak, the week that Josh Rosen and Steve Wilks earn their first victories in the NFL. I predict a Cardinals win, 23-17. Golden Rosen engineers the upset in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Do you agree, Redbirds fans? Can we finally end the misery this weekend? Or will the winless streak extend another week? Give us your predictions in the comments.