'They're playing fearless': 49ers know they can't look past upstart Cardinals

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As luck would have it for the San Francisco 49ers, last Sunday's slate of NFL games included a matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys. That afternoon meeting provided one-stop shopping for an early peek at the Niners' next two opponents.

The Niners paid attention, albeit with varying degrees of interest. Coach Kyle Shanahan was at his daughter's cheerleading competition, streaming it on his phone. Linebacker Fred Warner was at home, locked in. Defensive end Nick Bosa caught the end of the game after finishing up an autograph signing and a workout.

Like most outside observers, the Niners (3-0) were surprised by previously winless Arizona's convincing 28-16 win against previously unbeaten Dallas.

"Arizona looked like a really solid team that was playing harder than Dallas," Bosa said.

Aside from the opportunity to get an early look, the Cardinals' victory served a couple of other purposes.

First, any NFC loss for Dallas could benefit the Niners down the stretch when it comes to playoff seeding and home-field advantage.

Perhaps more importantly, it sounded an alarm within the walls of the locker room before their meeting with Arizona on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Levi's Stadium, Fox) that the Cardinals, who are 7-5 against the 49ers since Shanahan took over in 2017, are no pushovers. Before the Cardinals beat the Cowboys, the Week 5 meeting between San Francisco and Dallas was shaping up to be an epic showdown. Had both teams entered unbeaten, there's reason to believe it would be one of the most hyped regular-season matchups in recent memory, especially given the history between the two franchises.

And while there still figures to be plenty of pomp and circumstance for that one, the Cardinals' win against the Cowboys offered a resounding reminder that the Niners can't overlook Arizona if they want to be undefeated when Dallas comes to town.

"I don't think anybody, including Arizona probably, thought they'd win the game," safety Tashaun Gipson said. "I don't think Dallas thought that Arizona was going to come out there and handle the game in which they did and it results [in] a win for them.

"Obviously the Dallas Cowboys are a different opponent than the Cardinals from the outside perception. But that's an NFL football team. ... Obviously we can't take our match up lightly. But seeing how they came out there against Dallas, the most dangerous team is a team that really feels like they have nothing to lose. ... They're playing fearless, they're playing confident, and it's showing on tape right now."

Indeed, an Arizona team that many believed would be foundering near the bottom of the league has proved friskier than expected through the first three weeks. Arizona's offseason overhaul included the additions of coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort, the release of wideout DeAndre Hopkins and a trade request from star safety Budda Baker, an appeal that was not granted.

Even with Baker and quarterback Kyler Murray injured, the Cardinals have forged ahead by embracing a physical approach that the Niners appreciate. Arizona came into Week 4 sixth in the NFL in rushing yards (469), second in yards per carry (5.6) and tied for first in yards before contact per attempt (3.68). They've mixed in runs from new quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who has also taken good care of the ball, as the Cardinals are one of four teams (along with the 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Texans) not to throw an interception in the first three weeks.

Defensively, Gannon has brought many of the same principles he used as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, blitzing at the lowest rate in the league (11.7%) while still generating a sack on 8.6% of opponent dropbacks (eighth best in the NFL).

That's not to say, of course, that the Cardinals don't have their weaknesses. Arizona ranks 26th in yards allowed and yards per carry allowed and still struggles to tackle, yielding 1.98 yards after contact per rush, 27th in the league.

All those traits showed on video when the 49ers watched this week.

"I was pretty impressed," Warner said. "I think the Cowboys are looking at it like, 'Man, we didn't show up to play,' but hats off to the Cardinals and the way that they played, the way they executed. ... Everybody was talking about in the preseason, them tanking and all that kind of stuff, and they've showed up and showed otherwise."

As Shanahan is quick to point out, Arizona's performance against the Cowboys wasn't a one-off. The Cardinals blew fourth-quarter leads against the Washington Commanders and New York Giants in the first two weeks and could just as easily be entering Sunday's matchup in San Francisco as the league's biggest surprise.

"They had every chance to win versus Washington in Week 1," Shanahan said. "I believe that they should have. I forget the exact score, but I want to say it was like 27-7 in the third quarter versus the Giants, and they had every chance to win that, and it got away from them at the end. Dallas was very similar, but they didn't turn it over there at the end, and they kept finishing and keeping them out of the red zone and ended up not being close. So, they’re a team that really should be 3-0 right now.”

Instead, Arizona arrives with a 1-2 record and an eye on knocking off another top NFC contender. If the 49ers' Sunday takeaways are any indication, though, this time, the Cardinals' element of surprise won't be quite so abundant.