Before anyone should use the words “49ers” and “postseason” in the same sentence, the team needs to at least get to the .500 mark.
The 49ers have that opportunity on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium — a venue at which they have not experienced a victory since Oct. 18, 2020.
The 49ers are three-point underdogs to the NFC West-leading Cardinals, but this is a game that is well within their grasp ... but only if they get solid games from these five individuals:
5. TE George Kittle
On the eve of the 49ers’ Week 5 game at the Cardinals, the club placed tight end George Kittle on injured reserve. He missed that game and the next two.
Now, he is back.
Kittle did not look like the same player in the weeks before the 49ers shut him down. They need him healthy and producing in order for the team to make a run at the playoffs.
Kittle does not have to catch a bunch of passes to be effective. But when he is going right, he is a dangerous option in the passing game and a dominant blocker for the 49ers’ ground attack.
If the 49ers are going to make any noise, they need production from their most boisterous personality.
4. DT Arik Armstead
Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw underwent season-ending knee surgery, and that has led to a slightly different role for defensive lineman Arik Armstead.
Armstead has generally been a defensive end on base downs and moves inside to rush the passer as a defensive tackle. With Kinlaw unavailable, the 49ers are tinkering with how they deploy Armstead.
“Armstead has moved inside,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “He started last week, moving inside, that's still fluid. We'll see, what do we need for each particular week. We’ll see in what area Arik can help us.”
Armstead is a big key for the 49ers as a run defender and pass rusher. Regardless of which quarterback the Cardinals line up, there will be a lot on his plate in his ever-changing role.
3. WR Brandon Aiyuk
The mystery is solved.
We’ve been saying and writing for a while that 49ers second-year wide receiver Brandon Aikuk still has to learn how to be a professional. This week, he and his coaches came out and said it.
Aiyuk’s two weeks of strong practices resulted in his best game of the season against the Chicago Bears. He caught four passes for 45 and added a catch on a two-point conversion.
He also showed up with some impressive hustle plays as a blocker.
Deebo Samuel has accounted for nearly half of the 49ers’ yards in the passing game. They need Aiyuk to continue to step up.
2. S Talanoa Hufanga
Rookie Talanoa Hufanga stepped into the starting lineup in Week 8 for Jaquiski Tartt, who will miss at least another two games with a knee injury.
Hufanga held up his end of the bargain with a strong showing. It looks as if the 49ers have their starting strong safety of the future — and, perhaps, the present.
Hufanga will have run-pass responsibilities in the 49ers’ defense, which will only be heightened if Kyler Murray is able to play Sunday. The dual-threat Cardinals quarterback has not practiced this week due to an ankle injury.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
When the teams met four weeks ago, Jimmy Garoppolo was a spectator.
The game plan changes dramatically with Garoppolo at quarterback, rather than rookie Trey Lance. You can be sure that the 49ers’ quarterback in this game will not run the ball 16 times.
Garoppolo seemed to be losing his grip on the starting position after battling a calf injury and returning to action with a lackluster showing against the Indianapolis Colts. But he bounced back strong in a victory over the Bears. He took care of the football, did not get sacked and also ran for two touchdowns.
Now, he must do it again -- minus the rushing-for-touchdowns part.
The two other offensive players mentioned as players to watch will rely on Garoppolo to make the correct decisions and deliver passes that hit them in stride for yards after the catch.
As long as the 49ers win games, there will not be much discussion about a change at quarterback. But if the 49ers — and Garoppolo — struggle, the pressure will only intensify.