With a surprising 40-11 win over Indianapolis Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals are putting more heat on the San Francisco 49ers than anyone would have expected coming into the season. The win momentarily jumped them ahead of San Francisco for the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff picture, although the 49ers would regain it with a win Monday night in Washington.
It's been a season littered with parity in the NFL as 24 teams are within one game of the playoff race. The margin of error for the 49ers is incredibly thin going forward, as long as Arizona keeps winning.
But that could be a tall order. The Cardinals finish the regular season with three of their remaining five games on the road, where they are 2-3 on the season. Those games include Philadelphia, Tennessee and Seattle while they host the Rams and 49ers. They play the Seahawks and 49ers in their last two games. If they find a way to get into the postseason with that schedule, then they will have certainly earned it.
Calling Monday night's game a "must-win" for San Francisco would be an exaggeration, but it's a game that could be hugely disconcerting should they fall to 3-7 Washington. All of the 49ers' losses have come to teams currently on track to make it to the playoffs. And while Washington hasn't been eliminated yet, their chances at repeating as division champs are dismal at best.
Here are five keys for San Francisco to come away with a victory Monday night.
Make the Passing Game a Threat
Much has been made of Colin Kaepernick's struggles heading the league's worst passing attack. But the 49ers don't need him to throw for 300-plus Monday win in Washington. They just need to make it a viable threat to keep the defense from stacking the box against the run.
During the team's five-game winning streak earlier this season, the offense averaged just 173.8 yards through the air. Only once did Kaepernick eclipse 200 yards when he went for 238 against the Cardinals (Vernon Davis' 180-yard game).
Speaking of Davis, San Francisco must look to get him going early and often against the league's 26th-rated passing defense. Washington's safeties and linebackers do not match up well with the speedy tight end and the 49ers will try to take advantage of the various mismatches he provides.
Eight of Kaepernick's 11 touchdown throws have gone to his tight end this season.
Slow Down the Outside Passrushers
That means Joe Staley and Anthony Davis will have to continue to play well to help the 49ers set the tempo with their power running game. With the struggles on dealing with stunts in the inside, the guards Adam Snyder (filling in for the injured Mike Iupati) and Alex Boone must be better in protection than they have been the last two weeks.
Look for Washington to give the offense various looks with Orakpo and Kerrigan attacking the inside of the line on passing plays to disrupt the pocket. Snyder's familiarity with the scheme will be helpful, but this is the first time he's seen prolonged play on the left side of the line in a few seasons. He's played primarily on the right side of the line during his previous seven years in San Francisco.
Corners: Earn Your Contracts
Brock has been a big asset to the defense this season, leading the team with four interceptions after taking over Nnamdi Asomugha in Week 3. His snaps are due to increase drastically this week because he'll be playing on base downs and not just in nickel. He'll be charged with playing on the left side against either Washington's talented receivers including Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss. He could also see some time against former 49er Josh Morgan.
The same goes for Eric Wright, who made his debut with San Francisco last week against the Saints. Wright's contract is up following the season, but the rest of this year will serve as a tryout with the team. Should Wright play well in nickel situations, the 49ers would strongly consider bringing him back in a similar role next season.
Carlos Rogers will be returning to play against the team that drafted him No. 9 overall in 2005. While he's still been a productive player, the 32-year-old is slated to make $13.5 million over the next two seasons. With Brock's extension, Rogers must know his future with the 49ers is in doubt considering his cap figure going forward. He has treated 2013 like a contract year of sorts, knowing that he might be auditioning for other teams should they outbid San Francisco in the spring if the team tries to renegotiate his deal.
Contain the Running Game With Seven
A staple of the 49ers' defense over the last two seasons has been their ability to contain opponents' rushing attacks with just seven players in the box. It's allowed them to remain strong against the pass because they haven't had to devote a safety toward the line of scrimmage as often as teams do against them.
Robert Griffin III has thrown 10 interceptions this season after throwing five in 15 games last year. If San Francisco can continue to have four or five players in coverage in the early downs, they have a much better chance at forcing turnovers through disguising their coverage.
With the league's top running game, Washington's offense tries to do a lot of its damage with play action. Should the 49ers limit Alfred Morris and Griffin from gashing them with chunk yardage on the ground, the passing game becomes much easier to defend.
Don't Lose a Quarter
Coaches often break the regular season down into four-game quarters. The 49ers went 2-2 in their first quarter, 4-0 in the second and are 0-2 so far in the third. A win Monday would give them the chance to go .500 in their third quarter of the season with a win next week against the Rams.
Two wins in the next two games will put the 49ers at a favorable 8-4 heading into the season's final quarter. Considering Arizona's schedule to finish off the regular season, getting to 8-4 at that point would put the pressure back on the Cardinals in the NFC playoff race. San Francisco owns the tie breaker after their win in Week 6.
After Monday's game, three of the team's final five games will be at Candlestick, including their toughest remaining game against the Seahawks.
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