The Seattle Seahawks far and away have been the 49ers’ toughest divisional rival over the past decade. Over the past decade, the Seahawks or 49ers won seven of the 10 NFC West titles.
But after a surprising 2019 season and some eye-popping offseason moves, the Arizona Cardinals could be prepared to push for the divisional crown.
"This is probably the best football team I've been a part of on paper," Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson told the Hyperice Lab Podcast last week (h/t azcardinals.com).
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Peterson even has visions of reaching the same heights San Francisco climbed to in 2020.
"It's going to come down to us to manage the locker room, manage the egos and make sure everybody is on the same page and understand that we have to commit to one another, believe in one another and trust one another," Peterson said. "If we do those three things, we can be in Tampa (for the Super Bowl) ready to face whoever, and ready to hopefully bring that Lombardi trophy, the first Lombardi trophy, home to Arizona."
The Niners came up short of the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy in February at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Could Arizona catch up to the 49ers this season?
The Cardinals completed the NFL’s most notorious offseason trade in March, sending former All-Pro running back David Johnson for elite wideout DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. Hopkins is universally regarded as one of the league’s best wide receivers, if not the best.
Johnson has labored through injuries in recent seasons and lost his starting spot to Chase Edmonds in the back half of 2019.
Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray showed flashes of the talent that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in Arizona last season and now has had a full year to digest and understand coach Kliff Kingsbury’s playbook. Murray brought home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after throwing for over 3,700 yards and 22 touchdowns while also rushing for 544 yards.
To top it off, general manager Steve Keim got high marks from across the league for the Cardinals’ 2020 draft, bringing in a six-player haul including Clemson’s versatile defender Isaiah Simmons in the first round.
Arizona had the worst pass defense in the NFL last season, but Peterson was suspended for the first six games and rookie second-round pick Byron Murphy started all 16 games at cornerback. There was an abundance of youth at the position last year, and there's only room to improve for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Simmons likely will be a key part of improving that group.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers had some problems with Arizona in the duo’s first matchup a season ago, sneaking out of Glendale with a 28-25 win in a sloppy Thursday night game. Playing on a short week tends to lessen the margin between the two Thursday Night Football combatants on a regular basis, but the Cardinals made an impression nevertheless.
San Francisco won both matchups with Arizona in 2019, but they were far from a cakewalk.
Now that Murray’s arsenal of weapons has expanded and the defense has improved significantly, those two dates could be a concern for the 49ers in 2020. In fact, the Niners will open the regular season by hosting the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium in Week 1. San Francisco also is scheduled to play at Arizona in Week 16.
To be fair, the Niners also loaded up this offseason, adding multi-time Pro Bowl selection Trent Williams in a trade with Washington and drafting two promising prospects in defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and Arizona State speedster Brandon Aiyuk.
Another note in the 49ers' favor: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has owned Arizona in three career starts against the Cardinals.
The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson and a strong defense, so they shouldn’t be counted out by any stretch of the imagination.
But if Murray and Hopkins develop a quick rapport and the young signal-caller continues his rapid development, Arizona could be the team at the heels of the 49ers in the NFC West race.