Brock Purdy

Five 49ers to watch in Sunday's NFC West matchup vs. Cardinals

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The 49ers know their move to the No. 1 spot in the NFC is a week-to-week thing.

With four games remaining in the regular season, the 49ers control their own destiny. If they win four in a row, they will earn a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage.

The 49ers moved into the top spot with their Week 14 win over the Seattle Seahawks coupled with the Philadelphia Eagles’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

“Right now it doesn’t mean much,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of the NFC standings. “It just means where you’re at now.

“I know we won’t be (No. 1) if we don’t handle business this week. So that’s really all we’re worried about this week and then we’ll move to who we play after that.”

The 49ers (10-3) face the Arizona Cardinals (3-10) on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona.

Even with some key defensive players expected to be out of action due to injuries, the 49ers have more than enough star power to take down the Cardinals.

And they should, as long as these five 49ers to watch do their part in the Week 15 game against the Cardinals:

5, CB Ambry Thomas

After tumbling down the depth chart in his second NFL season, cornerback Ambry Thomas is making up for a lost year as a key member of the 49ers’ secondary.

Thomas is in line to start if Charvarius Ward (groin) does not suit up for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.

Regardless, Thomas will play a big role in the 49ers defense, as he’s done for most of this season.

Thomas has provided the 49ers with solid play after he disappeared last season. After ending his rookie season as the starter, Thomas failed to build on that momentum. 

He told NBC Sports Bay Area during training camp that he failed to prepare himself mentally or physically for Year 2 in the NFL.

“You never know when that light bulb is going to go on for a player,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Friday on KNBR.

“He’s had the talent, but it’s just the consistency. It’s all come together. He’s developed. He’s become a pro. . . . He’s grown up.”

4, TE George Kittle

One of the top matchups whenever the 49ers face the Cardinals takes place when tight end George Kittle lines up against Cardinals safety Budda Baker.

Whether Kittle is going after Baker as a run-blocker or whether Baker is assigned to cover Kittle on pass plays, it’s a head-to-head meeting that pits two of the better players in their positions against each other.

Kittle is closing in on the 1,000-yard mark with 53 receptions for 811 yards and six touchdowns on the season.

But he also has tremendous worth as a run-blocker for Christian McCaffrey, who leads the NFL with 1,177 yards on the season. McCaffrey averages 5.2 yards per rushing attempt and has scored 12 touchdowns on the ground this season.

3, LB Fred Warner

Linebacker Fred Warner might not be considered at the top of the list for NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates, but he might be having the best season of his career.

As always — but perhaps this week more than others — Warner will play a huge role in making sure the 49ers do not experience a slip-up with their sights set on the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Warner leads the 49ers with four interceptions this season, tying the club record for a non-defensive back. He has already extended his streak of consecutive seasons with 100 or more tackles to six.

Warner will be tested throughout Sunday’s game in all areas. Running back James Conner is the Cardinals’ leading ground gainer with a 4.9-yard average and four touchdowns.

Quarterback Kyler Murray is back in the lineup after missing the first nine games while returning from a torn ACL that ended his 2022 season. Warner will be challenged to keep Murray from tearing off big chunks of yards with his scrambling ability. 

2, DT Javon Kinlaw

The 49ers do not figure to have either of their starting defensive tackles available to play against the Cardinals.

This is a big game for defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, as he looks to put good play on film for the rest of the league to see. Kinlaw is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason after the 49ers declined to pick up his fifth-year option.

Arik Armstead is not expected to play due to a foot and knee issues, while Lynch said it might be “a reach” for Javon Hargrave to rush back and play this week after sustaining a hamstring strain last week against the Seattle Seahawks.

Kinlaw has remained healthy this season, which has enabled him to practice and improve his game behind the scenes. In games, he has done a much better job of playing lower and creating leverage to defend against running plays.

The Cardinals figure to test Kinlaw early in Sunday’s game, with Conner running the ball on early downs between the tackles.

1, QB Brock Purdy

Six years ago, quarterback Brock Purdy was honored at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, as the Arizona Cardinals High School Player of the Year for his on-field accomplishments at Perry High in suburban Gilbert, Arizona.

On Sunday, Purdy will return to Arizona to play in his first game in his home state as a professional.

He played one previous post-prep game in his home state after his final game of a high-school career that saw him throw for 8,937 yards and 107 touchdowns as a varsity player. In January 2021, he led Iowa State to a 34-17 victory over Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

Purdy will look to advance his MVP candidacy against a Cardinals defense that has allowed the opposition to complete 69.9 percent of its pass attempts for an average of 233.9 yards per game this season.

Since the bye week, Purdy and the 49ers have been on a roll. The 49ers have won five consecutive games, and Purdy has put up huge numbers. He leads the league in completion percentage (70.2), yards per attempt (9.9) and passer rating (116.9.) He has 3,553 yards passing with four games remaining.

Purdy is on the verge of becoming just the third 4,000-yard passer in 49ers history, and he is closing in on Jeff Garcia’s single-season team record of 4,278 yards passing.

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