Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh is giving opponents a healthy dose of running back Frank Gore lately. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
NFL coaches don’t like to look ahead, so 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t about to look past Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals, after all, have the same 3-2 record as the Niners, and the teams are tied for second behind the 4-1 Seahawks in the NFC West. And, just like San Francisco, Arizona has won two straight games to rebound from a disappointing 1-2 start.
But if the 49ers can handle the Cardinals Sunday at Candlestick Park – and oddsmakers have made them 10½-point favorites – they could set up a string of victories. After a tough schedule to start the season against already-established teams or teams that were expected to improve, in the Packers, Seahawks, Colts, Rams and Texans – the 49ers now have the Cardinals, Titans, Jaguars and Panthers (plus a bye week) – before having to travel to New Orleans on Nov. 17 to face a Saints team that’s off to a 5-0 start.
If the 49ers -- who regrouped after a loss to the Colts to focus again on establishing a solid ground attack – can go undefeated over this stretch of games in which they’ll likely be favorites each week – they’d find themselves 7-2 with plenty of momentum going into their final seven games.
And, by that point, the 49ers’ passing game may be boosted by the return of injured wide receivers Mario Manningham (who is to begin practicing with the team next week) and Michael Crabtree.
But to get rolling, the 49ers will have to beat the visiting Cardinals Sunday, a matchup that seems to favor San Francisco.
Arizona has been unable to run the ball consistently, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry with Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington. With new quarterback Carson Palmer, however, Arizona can be dangerous through the air. Wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have combined for 45 catches, 589 yards and three TDs. Palmer, however, has been an interception machine, throwing nine already.
The defense has been Arizona’s strength. The Cardinals give up just 19 points per game, 10th best in the NFL and rank third-best in the league against the run, allowing only 79 yards per game.
With the 49ers pounding the ball with Frank Gore the past two games, that could mean a strength vs. strength matchup Sunday may determine the outcome: if the Niners’ offensive line can continue to open big holes for Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James (now back from injury), San Francisco should be able to control the game.
As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com noted, the 49ers have rushed for 175 yards or more in two consecutive games, the first time they’ve done that in 12 seasons. And Gore is averaging 6.3 yards per carry in those wins over the Rams and Texans.
Though the 49ers’ passing offense has stalled in recent weeks as opponents choke off receivers not named Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, quarterback Colin Kaepernick says he’s buying in to refocusing on the running attack.
“I’m happy with wins, consecutive wins,” he told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group this week. “As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”
In the victory over the Texans, Kaepernick threw only 15 times, completing six for 113 yards – much of that coming on a 64-yard catch-and-run TD play to Davis.
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted this week, Kaepernick is suffering from a dearth of available targets. When throwing to Boldin, his quarterback rating is 108.5. When throwing to Davis, it’s 94.4. His QB rating when passing to all other wideouts is 27.7.
So for now, the 49ers will likely continue to rely on their ground attack, while having Kaepernick take a secondary role. And the third-year pro QB – who is 10-5 as a starter in his career – is fine with that.
“The only stat I care about is if we won or not,” says Kaepernick.