SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)A dramatic comeback against Arizona has assured the San Francisco 49ers of their first winning season in six years.
The next three games will go a long way to determining whether the 49ers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender or merely a pleasant surprise.
San Francisco has little time to revel in a 16-point comeback against the Cardinals that was the team’s biggest in the regular season in eight years. Because soon after that 36-26 victory was complete on Sunday, attention turned to a three-game gauntlet against a trio of first-place teams in Green Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans.
It all starts on Sunday night when the 49ers host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
”This is why you play football for this kind of a stretch,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. ”We put ourselves in a pretty solid position here, but it means nothing if we don’t get our jobs done over these next few weeks.”
After rolling to eight straight wins to open the season, things haven’t been nearly as easy the past two weeks. San Francisco lost 27-24 in overtime to Seattle on Nov. 11 in a physical battle that left a toll on the players.
That contributed to a slow start against the Cardinals. But San Francisco managed to rally from a 16-0 hole to score the go-ahead touchdown on Jimmy Garoppolo’s 25-yard pass to Jeff Wilson Jr. in the final minute against Arizona.
”It was a bunch of highs and lows in that game and it was a little bit exhausting, but we enjoyed it,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.
Garoppolo. The Niners haven’t needed a lot of their quarterback this season, relying more on defense and the running game for success. But in two games against the Cardinals when he was needed, Garoppolo has been outstanding. He threw for a career-high 424 yards Sunday with four TD passes. He joined Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young as the only San Francisco QBs to throw for at least 400 yards and four TDs in a single game. Garoppolo also threw for 317 yards and four TDs in the first meeting against Arizona.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Running game. After ranking second best in the league with 181.1 yards rushing per game the first seven games, the Niners have been shut down the past three weeks. San Francisco is tied for 26th with just 74 yards rushing per game in that span. That has coincided with an injury that has sidelined tight end George Kittle, a key blocker in the running game. Shanahan basically abandoned the running game in the second half against the Cardinals as San Francisco was held to 34 yards on 19 carries.
WR Deebo Samuel. With Kittle sidelined and Emmanuel Sanders limited by injured ribs, the second-round rookie Samuel has stepped up in a big way the past two weeks. He had eight catches for a career-high 134 yards and is quickly becoming one of Garoppolo’s most trusted targets. That comes after Samuel had eight catches for 112 yards the previous game against Seattle. Samuel is the first Niners rookie with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since the merger. The previous time any San Francisco player had consecutive 100-yard games came in December 2017 when Marquise Goodwin did it.
Richard Sherman. Kyler Murray showed no hesitancy challenging Sherman. It paid off in three pass interference calls that led to 72 yards in penalties against the 49ers. Sherman had been called for three penalties all season, including none since the season opener.
DE Dee Ford left the game with a hamstring injury and could miss a couple of weeks. … Kittle (knee, ankle), RB Matt Breida (ankle), K Robbie Gould (quadriceps), DT D.J. Jones (groin) all will be evaluated this week to see if they will be able to return.
281. Garoppolo did almost all of his damage in the passing game on underneath throws and screens. San Francisco gained 281 yards after the catch, the most by a team in a single game since 2014.
The 49ers host Green Bay on Sunday night.
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