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Cardinals-49ers Game Preview: 5 questions and answers with the Week 18 enemy

NFL: Washington Commanders at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Happy game day one and all.

The San Francisco 49ers are fighting for the one seed in the NFC and Tyler Austin was kind enough to stop by from Niners Nation and talk to us about that and even more.


1. How important is the 1 seed for the San Francisco 49ers?

The fact that this question feels remotely appropriate, considering the Niners worrying 3-4 start, represents a victory lap, in and of itself. They’d literally be the first team in NFL history to have started the season sub-.500 through seven weeks to finish as the top seed of their conference.

As to the meat of your question, obviously, any team would love to take the top spot these days, especially since the playoff format change that gives them the only bye in the bracket. Would a defense that’s played at an all-world clip for 10+ weeks like a chance to recover and reload? Certainly. Would an offense that’s gotten hotter than a two dollar pistol since the shocking arrival of Brock Purdy want to be off the field right as they’ve hit a stride? Harder to say.

From an opponent standpoint, I’m not quite as sold. Sure, if the season ends where things stand now, they’ll grab the two seed and most likely have to face the next hottest team in the Green Bay Packers. They whom have the clearest path to locking up the final wild card spot and one of the best quarterbacks in the world *cough* *cough* Aaron Rodgers.

Yet, operating under the assumption that Rodgers and co. will wax their first opponent, who would the #1 Niners have to face after Wild Card Weekend? The Green Bay Packers. You have to beat the best teams to win the Super Bowl, no matter what. Of course, home field advantage for two playoff games led to a brisk entry to the big game back in ‘19, so it’d be ridiculous to argue against its importance. However, if the Niners only have to go on the road for one matchup, preferably against a herky-jerky Eagles team, then I wouldn’t be so worried.

So, to answer as directly as possible, I’d say getting the 1 seed would be nice, but not life-changing, and, based on the report that the Giants will likely rest starters, not all that likely anymore.

2. Is this the best season of coaching we have seen from Kyle Shanahan?

In a word, yes. This team would match the most wins in a season under his direction, if they notch their 13th victory against the Cardinals. The one glaring, massive difference between the ‘19 squad and this year’s rests at the quarterback position. Think of how many starters the Niners trotted out during their first Super Bowl run. That’s right... ONLY ONE! The fact that Kyle Shanahan has conducted this offense to new heights of efficiency with a third string rookie that nearly went undrafted is a little bit like turning water to wine or finding the Virgin Mary’s face in your grilled cheese sandwich.

Essentially, and some may argue by design, Shanahan managed to create an offense that makes the quarterback nearly interchangeable. There’s been a pop with Purdy’s arrival since he has displayed a willingness to take deep shots and extend plays using his athleticism. That’s all good and well, but credit the coaching staff for having him so well prepared to come in without missing a beat.

Furthermore, even though Shanahan’s best regarded as an offensive genius coach, I believe you have to give him credit for creating a culture that’s fostered an incredibly dominant defense. Famously, his high standards are most harshly upheld for his wide receivers, but you cannot deny that they’ve seeped into the mindset of every facet of the team and the entire organization.

Also, does he not deserve credit for finding and empowering the league’s most sought after head coaching candidate in DeMeco Ryans? That’s as much a part of the job and it’s a box resoundingly checked on his To Do List.

3. Who is the key for the 49ers in the playoffs?

If there’s one key for the 49ers in the playoffs, it’s one of those old keys with two big teeth that somehow still works in your grandmother’s 100 years old liquor cabinet. Those two little teeth have opened up both sides of the ball and they are Christian McCaffrey and Nick Bosa.

Nick Bosa’s dominance, which frees up his fellow defensive lineman and, by extension, the entire defense, can NOT be understated. He single-handedly changes the chemistry for any offense on every down and he manages to create game-changing chaos on a routine basis. Think of how the Raiders met their end in Week 17. Bosa simply drove a 300 pound man backwards into the lap of his quarterback and caused an interceptable pass, which directly led to the go-ahead field goal. There’s a reason that over the last month he became the odds on favorite for DPOY and, frankly, he deserves it.

While everyone knew Bosa’s significance back in August, the idea of McCaffrey wearing Red and Gold before the season would’ve felt like a pipe dream. However, the right confluence of events made the acquisition not only possible, but utterly necessary. The Niners’ offense desperately required a running back to execute Shanahan’s play-calling at a higher level than the combination of Jeff Wilson Jr. and Ty Davis-Price. Enter CMC, who’s talent as a runner actually seems underrated when you consider his entire package as an “offensive weapon.” He has everything you want in a running back — the speed, vision, power, shiftiness — PLUS the pass-catching ability of a top tier receiver. Of course, Shanahan has deployed that skill set to perfection. Remember Deebo Samuel in 2021? This is the 2.0 version.

4. If Jimmy G does not come back, does it change the Super Bowl or bust?

Not for me. In fact, given what we’ve seen, I don’t think Jimmy G would get his job back if he were 100% healthy heading into the playoffs. Purdy’s the hot hand, and you gotta go with the hot hand. Them’s the rule, I don’t make ‘em, I just enforce ‘em.

Beyond that well established principle, Purdy has proven he can add new dimensions to the offense and can handle himself in a high scoring game. Players on both sides of the ball have pointed to his confidence and poise as a quarterback and I’ll trust their opinion on the matter.

I’ll finish with this list of names for no particular reason:

Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Nick Foles

5. DraftKings Sportsbook has Christian McCaffrey @ +165 for Comeback Player of the Year, Kyle Shanahan at +175 for Coach of the Year, and Brock Purdy @ +450 for Offensive Rookie of the Year... Which one’s are you betting?

I’m betting the house on Kyle Shanahan at +175 for Coach of the Year.

See: Answer 2