Sunday’s regular season finale game at Levi’s Stadium is upon us that could determine the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The 49ers (12-4) have already clinched the NFC West title. If they beat the Arizona Cardinals (4-12) and the current No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) lose to the playoff-bound New York Giants (9-6-1), the 49ers will move up to the top spot in the playoffs and secure a first-round bye. With both games starting at 4:25 PM eastern time, neither top seeded teams are in a position to rest their starters with a lot on the line.
It has been quite the ride for San Francisco, losing their top two quarterbacks in Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance for the season, yet are still in the thick of things with rookie Brock Purdy.
Purdy was the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, aka Mr. Irrelevant, and he has now won each of his last four games as a starter. Their opponents in the Arizona Cardinals will try to play spoilers in what been an injury-ravaged season with 15 Week 1 starters out with injuries.
Here are three things to watch for in Cardinals-49ers in the final week of the 2022 regular season:
J.J. Watt’s final game in the NFL; Six other Cardinals could be headed for retirement too
Two weeks ago, the NFL world got some surprising news that J.J. Watt will retire after the season. He is still on top of his game as an elite pass rusher with 34 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 52 quarterback pressures. As the saying goes though, all things will come to an end at some point as he gears up for the last football game of his career after 12 incredible seasons in the NFL. Watt will give it all he has as he always does to add to his 112.5 career sacks total. Levi’s stadium is the only stadium Watt has never played in in the NFL and he will get to check that off his checklist later today.
Cardinals C Rodney Hudson agreed to reduce his base salary from $8.25M to $2.05M in 2023.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 7, 2023
Hudson previously contemplated retirement and agreeing to doing this could be a signal he’s set to retire this offseason.
If so, a helluva run. An awesome, dependable, consistent player.
Yesterday, center Rodney Hudson agreed to reduce his 2023 base salary and ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates noted that the veteran offensive lineman could be headed for retirement. Offensive guard Justin Pugh was placed on season-ending injured reserve in October and, just like Hudson, contemplated retirement during the offseason. Right tackle Kelvin Beachum is not getting any younger as he turns 34 year old in June. Seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green was asked if today’s game would be his last in the NFL as he turns 35 in July and he responded “whatever the decision is, I'm at peace.” With old age in the NFL comes with retirement rumors. Punter Andy Lee and kicker Matt Prater are 40 and 38 respectively but are still playing at a high level. These are six highly respected veterans that could hang up the cleats at season’s end and the Cardinals will try to give them a proper send off.
Expect a heavy dose of Christian McCaffrey and the run game
The best way to avoid being sacked by J.J. Watt is by handing the ball off to the running backs. In the Cardinals’ last game against the 49ers in Mexico City, their defense allowed 5.7 yards per carry to San Francisco’s potent rush attack. A mix of Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, and Deebo Samuel makes the 49ers’ run offense a very difficult unit to stop. Top that off with George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. Yes, that is a nightmare offense for any defense. To make matters worse, Vance Joseph’s defense has allowed the eighth-most rushing touchdowns (19) in the NFL this season.
Arizona is not particularly good at stopping pass-catching running backs. In McCaffrey’s two games against Arizona, he had 16 catches for 148 receiving yards and one touchdown. Chargers’ Austin Ekeler had 11 catches, 60 receiving yards, and a touchdown in Week 12 against the Cardinals. Especially with linebacker Zaven Collins ruled out and Arizona missing defensive linemen Zach Allen and Rashard Lawrence, 49ers’ running backs should have a field day.
More of an audition game for Cardinals players
The 49ers are 14.5-point favorites against the Cardinals as they should be as San Francisco is on fire on a nine-game win streak as Arizona currently sits on a six-game losing streak. Despite the odds and everything working against them, this is still an opportunity for Cardinals players to seize their moment. David Blough made his first start in an Arizona uniform last week against the Atlanta Falcons and looked sharp as he completed 24-of-40 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Expect rookie second-round tight end Trey McBride to be his go-to target yet again as the Colorado State product is coming off his best game with 78 receiving yards and a touchdown. If Blough can play well against a highly-touted 49ers’ defense that ranks first in average points allowed (16.5) and second in total yards from scrimmage (303.4) allowed per game, he will make a strong case to be a backup quarterback on an NFL team in the 2023 season.
Based on the Cardinals’ depth chart, rookie sixth-round pick out of USC Keaontay Ingram is the next man up at running back with James Conner ruled out with a knee injury. He has 78 total scrimmage yards and a touchdown so far this season. Rookie seventh-round pick out of Valdosta State Christian Matthew will make a third start this season for the Cardinals as their top three cornerbacks in Byron Murphy, Marco Wilson, and Antonio Hamilton are out. Expect the Cardinals to play their pair of rookie third-round pass rushers Cam Thomas and Myjai Sanders a lot more in the regular season finale. Charles Washington has primarily played on special teams but is in line to make his first-career start at safety in his six-year career for Arizona with Budda Baker and Chris Banjo on injured reserve.
With only one retirement confirmed, Congratulations J.J. Watt on an outstanding 12-year NFL career!