TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — In the mediocre NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers look like a team ready to move up the rankings.
As for the Arizona Cardinals? Well, at least there’s still hope.
The 49ers and Cardinals meet in Mexico City Monday night in a division-rival showdown. It’s also a rematch of the NFL’s first regular-season game played in another country: the Cardinals beat the 49ers 31-14 at Estadio Azteca in 2005 in front of more than 100,000 fans.
San Francisco (5-4) is going for its third straight win and has one of the best defenses in the league. The offense isn’t quite as impressive, though it’s stabilized under veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and recently acquired running back Christian McCaffery, who the Niners added a few weeks ago in a trade with the Niners. Panthers.
The Cardinals (4-6) earned a 27-17 win over the Rams last weekend with backup quarterback Colt McCoy under center. Starter Kyler Murray missed the game with hamstring pain. Murray hopes to be available Monday for a crucial game to stay in playoff contention.
“It’s the only thing to do is stay alive and stay in the fight,” Murray said. “It’s not over. Obviously the season hasn’t gone the way we wanted, but we’re still in it. The season isn’t over. We know this team is talented enough to run that we feel that we can go on.
“That’s the mission and that’s the mentality right now.”
Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury and San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said they were both excited to go to Mexico City for the game. The NFL is playing five international games this season, but it’s the only one not in Europe.
Shanahan said the 49ers’ fan base in Mexico makes the country a “second home.” Kingsbury also expects plenty of support for the Cardinals.
“I hear it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” Kingsbury said. “I’m sure a lot of our players have never been to Mexico City or experienced anything like it. To play in this stadium – just a legendary football stadium and so many cool events and matches – it will be great .
The 49ers spent the week at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., training for the game in hopes that spending more time at high altitude would help them prepare for the game in Mexico City, which is at about 7,200 feet elevation.
The team arrived in Colorado on Tuesday and practiced through Saturday before heading to Mexico on Sunday.
“You want to train at that altitude because the more days you spend there the more your body gets used to it, so hopefully that will make it easier for us on Monday night,” Shanahan said.
THE SOFTNESS OF HOME
The Cardinals opted to stay at their home in Tempe, Ariz., instead of training at altitude.
Kingsbury said he was considering taking the team somewhere like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 7,000 feet above sea level, but the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Buddy Morris, thought he could prepare the team without extra travel.
“Yes, we looked at all the options,” Kingsbury said. “Buddy is doing a wonderful job with all of these things. He’s done all kinds of research on this, and we thought the program that we could put together here for all altitude training was really good and wouldn’t disrupt our routine, so they’ve been there for the last two or three weeks.
RED ZONE TROUBLES
The 49ers had little trouble moving the ball last week against the Chargers but struggled to complete practices. They entered the red zone five times, but turned those trips into just two touchdowns. A dropped pass from Brandon Aiyuk and a few blown blocks on run plays contributed to the issues.
For the season, San Francisco is scoring touchdowns on 54.8% of red-zone runs, up from a league-leading 66.7% in 2021.
“I think there were a lot of things that clicked, but you won’t get any points if you move it and you can’t score inside the 10,” Shanahan said. “You won’t get enough points, that’s for sure.”
If Murray is unable to play, the Cardinals are more than comfortable using veteran backup McCoy.
The 36-year-old quarterback is 3-1 for starts over the past two seasons, filling in admirably when Murray was injured. McCoy completed 26 of 37 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown against the Rams.
McCoy is dealing with his own injury issues — he suffered a knee injury against the Rams and was briefly gone before returning. Kingsbury said McCoy’s resilience is one of the many reasons he’s a quality backup option.
“He got hurt, he went back and it was just the same guy,” Kingsbury said. “He wasn’t fazed by it all. It was kind of his biggest trait as a quarterback that impressed me. He doesn’t get rattled and he just plays his game, sticks to his guns and trusts what he can do out there.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow in Santa Clara, Calif., contributed to this report.
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