After all the talk about altitude, preparation and injuries to key personnel, a football game will finally be played Monday night in Mexico City as the Cardinals seek to remain relevant in the NFC West.
With a victory, the 49ers would move their record to 6-4 and tie the Seahawks, idle in Week 11, for first place in the division. Technically, San Francisco would be ahead thanks to its 27-7 victory in Week 2.
A Cardinals win to make their record 5-6 record would result in them being one-half game behind the 49ers and keep them even with Atlanta in the NFC. Currently, there are seven NFC teams that have winning records including all four teams in the NFC East: Philadelphia 9-1, Dallas and N.Y. Giants 7-3 and Washington 6-5.
The other three are Minnesota at 8-2, along with Seattle and the 49ers. Tampa Bay, the leader in the NFC South, is 5-5. Detroit, winners of three consecutive games, is 4-6.
The atmosphere is expected to be electric in Estadio Azteca where reports have 82 percent of those in attendance being 49ers fans.
Cardinals guard Will Hernandez, who is on reserve/injured, grew up in a Mexican home and a large number of his father’s side of the family is from the country. He confirmed that the noise will rarely stop during the game.
“The atmosphere out there is on a different level,” Hernandez said. “People get loud out there, they’re passionate. Definitely going to be a lot of crowd noise. I know these guys are preparing for it, I know the coaches are going to have us ready for it.
“I think they just remodeled it a little bit and dropped down the total people allowed in the stadium by 10 percent, because it gets that crazy.”
Amid that backdrop, here is what to watch from a football standpoint.
Who will be active for the Cardinals?
Will it be Kyler Murray or Colt McCoy at quarterback for the Cardinals? Will wide receiver Hollywood Brown be activated from reserve/injured and, if so, what will be his role? Same with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was limited in practice during the week because of a hamstring injury that coach Kliff Kingsbury called “a maintenance deal.”
Reports on Sunday claimed the Cardinals were “leaning” toward playing McCoy for the second consecutive game and that Brown might not be activated. A Monday morning report claimed Murray might not play until after the team’s Week 13 bye.
On the team’s Twitter account, a short video had Hopkins saying, “What’s up? It’s DHop. I know y’all excited for the Mexico City game like I am. Can’t wait to see you all there.”
Field conditions might be part of the decision. Four years ago, a game there between the Rams and Chiefs was cancelled because of turf issues. Surely, Cardinals personnel have checked it out. The worst would be Murray or Hopkins aggravating their hamstring problems because of the field.
As for Brown, the altitude could be a factor because he hasn’t played a game since Oct. 16 in Seattle and his foot injury also affected his conditioning, especially early in the process.
The question is whether the Cardinals will be conservative or throw caution to the wind with seven games remaining in the regular season.
49ers running game
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph figured he was done preparing for running back Christian McCaffrey after the Cardinals faced the Panthers in Week 4. However, the 49ers acquired him in a trade on Oct. 21 to team with Elijah Mitchell, who was activated from reserve/injured Nov. 12.
Asked about the duo, Joseph said, “It’s the same most of the time. Mitchell finished the game last week with I think the last 8-10 carries. It was Mitchell when he’s fresh. He’s a young guy, so he’s a tough out. McCaffrey in the pass game is a bigger threat. But in the run game, it’s the same. It’s a tough scheme to master with the jets and the motions and the shifts. They’re trying to un-gap you before the ball’s even snapped. It’s difficult with both guys and with Christian it’s a lot tougher.”
The 49ers trailed the Chargers 16-12 in Week 10 in the fourth quarter, but in two possessions that resulted in a touchdown and a field goal for a 22-16 win, Mitchell had nine rushes for 42 yards. He was 5-23 in the first half and 13-66 in the final two quarters. McCaffrey rushed for 38 yards on 14 attempts in the game to go with four receptions for 39 yards, so it is possible to keep him in check.
That will be the Cardinals’ goal. As Joseph said, what’s difficult is matching up against him in the passing game.
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Joseph said. “He adds the passing game element from the backfield for those guys. Their running game’s the first deal they do, but him as a receiver is a tough match for most ‘backers. So to have a plan to get the right guy on him on first, second and third down, it’s a must for us. Adding one more great player to the offense is obviously good for them and bad for us, but it’s definitely different watching them with him and without.
“He’s in the slot. He’s running jet. He’s running sweeps, he’s catching balls downfield, throwing passes. To watch what they’ve done with him the last month, it’s been kind of scary.”
Murphy on the shelf
For the second straight week, cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. will be inactive because of a back injury, which means the spotlight being on Marco Wilson and Antonio Hamilton again.
Wilson has been the starter since the season started, but Hamilton has been working his way back since being activated from reserve/non-football injury following the accident in which his feet were burned in late August.
He played 90 percent of the snaps against the Rams and had 12 tackles (10 solo), two passes defensed and a near interception. The 49ers will challenge the secondary with receivers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings.
Joseph said Hamilton will be relied on “a lot” and said, “He came out of camp as a starter and he’s getting back to what he was in the summer. To watch him play (against the Rams) not only as a cover guy, but as a run defender, he made some plays in the running game that hadn’t been made in a while in the C and B gaps.
“That’s a test of his toughness and his size. He’s a big corner, but he played his butt off. He’s a guy that has great confidence in his game. He studies, he’s mature, he’s tough. He’s gonna play more for us.”
Said Kingsbury, “He’s getting his feel for the game back. It hurt him missing the first month or five weeks. There’s no doubt he was in really fine form throughout camp, (then) had that unfortunate accident, but I’ve been really impressed with the last couple weeks. The game is slowing down for him. He’s playing aggressive, playing physical and it’s been fun to watch.”
Budda and J.J.
Even Joseph, who has seen a lot, was “shocked” Baker played against the Rams after suffering a high-ankle sprain against Seattle. Hard Knocks showed Kingsbury being told Baker would miss two or three weeks.
Joseph said, “I’m watching him run around on Thursday and I was like, ‘Whoa, he might go.’ And then Friday, it was no question he was gonna go and he played his butt off. He was no different than how he played the week before. He made the same plays he would make if he was totally healthy.”
On his late-game interception, Joseph admitted, “I was screaming get down, just get down because those linemen are going to tackle you and fall on your ankle. But he didn’t complain one second. He played the entire game for the most part and he was Budda. There was no difference.”
Asked if that is noticed by teammates, Joseph said, “Absolutely. After Week 1, everyone’s sore. So to watch Budda push through; he’s our leader, he’s our team captain, so guys have to watch that and say, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool. If he can go, I should go,’ and that starts with your mindset. Budda was pushing to play from the day he got hurt, so that’s definitely a good example for our young guys, trying to push through injury and trying to play through the whole season.
“Everyone’s sore. Everyone’s hurt right now. Everyone’s tired. But the team who pushes through and makes their run late, that’s the ones who want to make the playoff run. So that’s our hope. So having Budda, having J.J. and those guys push through right now is big for our team.”
Meanwhile, Watt had a sack, tackle for loss, five quarterback hits and a fumble recovery against the Rams.
“I thought J.J. was dominant inside in the run and pass game alike,” Joseph said. “He pushed the pocket; ball was coming out fairly fast. I thought J was dominant in his gap. Our pass rush has gotten better because Zach (Allen) and J.J. have pushed the pocket and that’s made the pass rush a lot better. Our best matchup weekly is to put J.J. and Zach on the center and two guards. That’s where it starts for us right now. J.J. and Zach control our pass rush.
“If he’s (Watt) playing with his power all the time, most guards or centers can’t block him one on one, so he gets to slide a lot of time from the center and Zach gets the one on ones most of the time. So with those two inside, that has really helped our pass rush win more often than not.”
With left tackle D.J. Humphries out again because of a back injury, the Cardinals will play for the second consecutive week with only one starter on the offensive line that began the season: right tackle Kelvin Beachum.
Beachum was a large part of the second episode of Hard Knocks, exhorting rookie right guard Lecitus Smith and leaving the team early in the week after passing out and believing he might have appendicitis.
That wasn’t the case, although he did describe it as some kind of “itis.” When Beachum returned to the team, line coach Sean Kugler put an alleged x-ray on the screen that had superimposed a bag of white cheddar popcorn, one of the tackle’s favorite snacks.
Asked about Beachum’s impact, Kingsbury said, “He’s like the CEO of that room. He’s a big business guy, has all these investments, made a lot of money away from the field so he definitely has a calming presence. He sees it from a very analytical standpoint.”
Beachum gave Kingsbury a glare after a screen pass in the game against the Rams led to McCoy suffering a knee injury.
Kingsbury added, “He’s a guy that will send you video clips, (saying), ‘Hey, we should put this in or what do you think about this?’ Yesterday, he told me there’s a play that would get Colt killed and I kinda pushed back about it. I watched the video and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ so I sent him a text and told him I appreciate his honesty. He’s a guy you can trust and I think the entire line understands that when he says something, it’s thought out and it’s usually the right thing.”
Meanwhile, Hard Knocks also showed Beachum “chirping” at Rams players several times during the game. Smith said he hadn’t previously seen that side of Beachum.
“He’s from Texas, so we get down in Texas like that,” Kingsbury said. “You piss off a Texas country boy and it’s gonna be on. He usually doesn’t talk that violently, but he has it in him.”
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