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What to watch for in Cardinals-49ers on 'TNF'

Before the season started, few Cardinals fans would have circled this Thursday Night Football divisional matchup as a must-win game for their franchise. But here we are, previewing a game between two struggling offenses inhabiting the cellar of the NFC West with 1-3 marks.

The deep-ball offense that characterized Arizona's division-leading offense in 2015 has disappeared. The Cardinals' ball-hawking secondary is getting spliced by average wide receivers. Arizona has lost as many games through the quarter mark of 2016 as it did all of last season.

While the Seahawks and Rams lead the wild NFC West with stingy defenses and opportunistic offenses, Arizona's units have played well below the expectations set by their NFC Championship campaign just one year ago. With a talent-poor roster and enigmas at quarterback, San Francisco is almost overachieving at 1-3. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are entering must-win territory, and it doesn't help that their veteran leader on offense, Carson Palmer, has been ruled out after suffering a Week 4 concussion.

Can the Cardinals save their season behind a backup quarterback? Will the 49ers spoil Arizona's run at a second consecutive division title? Here's what we'll be watching for (you can stream Thursday's game on Twitter):

  1. Taking over for Palmer is Drew Stanton, who is in his third season with the Cards. He was serviceable in eight starts in 2014, while Palmer dealt with finger and ACL injuries. Stanton averaged 203.3 yards per game, threw for seven TDs and five interceptions in his eight starts, and led Arizona to the postseason with five wins despite completing under 55 percent of his passes. In his short showing last week against the Rams, Stanton was tasked with leading Arizona on a game-winning drive without the support of a run game and couldn't play up to the moment. Stanton went 4-of-11 passing for 37 yards with two interceptions, including one ugly dart across the middle.

The journeyman backup will come into Thursday's game with a blank slate, so we shouldn't see a replication of his hurried, nervy performance against Los Angeles, just as long as he's upright. The Cardinals' offensive line subjected Palmer to an atypical amount of pressure in their three losses, surrendering 11 sacks, including the takedown that knocked Palmer out of the game last week. If the more mobile Stanton can evade whatever minimal rush San Francisco's front seven presents, then the Cards' offense shouldn't see too much of a setback with a backup under center.

  1. Contributing to the Cardinals' struggles on offense has been their inability to score first, or at the very least, score in the first quarter. Through four games, Arizona has yet to score a single point in the opening 15 minutes and instead the team has punted 10 times. With Stanton under center, it's unlikely there will be any increased confidence in play calling to spur a hotter start. However, instead of forcing the ball downfield early as Palmer is oft to do, the Cards can use David Johnson as their workhorse and Andre Ellington as a change of pace in short situations to keep drives moving against San Francisco's poor run defense. Putting Gabbert and the San Francisco offense behind on the scoreboard in the first quarter would be a surefire way to put this game to bed early.
  1. The Cardinals' cornerbacks across from Patrick Peterson were exploited time and time again against the Rams' league-worst passing game; Marcus Cooper looked overmatched against Brian Quick of all people, who beat the fourth-year cornerback for two touchdowns, including the game-winner. Arizona's defensive backs have to rebound this week against a similarly mediocre crop of wideouts in San Francisco. The 49ers' yards-per-play average (4.7) is the second-worst in the league, just above the Rams (4.6). Their deep threat wideout, Torrey Smith, is frustrated with Blaine Gabbert's play at quarterback, despite the quarterback's claims that their relationship is "fine." If Arizona can't shut down journeyman slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, Garrett Celek -- the second-best Celek -- and San Francisco's passing game, then there will be legitimate reason to panic in the desert.
  1. How will the 49ers' defense perform without NaVorro Bowman? The linebacker was lost for the season during last week's loss with an Achilles injury, and following his departure, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott really turned it on. Without their captain and emotional leader, the 49ers will be hard-pressed to match Bowman's presence and production with Nick Bellore and Gerald Hodges on the inside. San Francisco will also likely be without promising rookie defensive DeForest Buckner (foot), who leads the team in tackle assists.
  1. Across the field from San Francisco's banged-up front is sophomore stud David Johnson, whose massive expectations have been tempered by Arizona's offensive inefficiency and poor line play. Still, Johnson leads the league in yards from scrimmage (510) and will prove to be Stanton's best friend out of the backfield on screens and wheel routes on Thursday night. D.J. should take advantage of the 49ers' league-worst rush defense (140.5 YPG) and carry the load for Arizona.
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