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The 49ers may have a new divisional rival

Forget the Seahawks and Rams. It’s about Arizona now.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Thursday’s tough win over the Cardinals made one thing clear: they are San Francisco’s new rival in the NFC West for the next few years.

All it took was one dominating victory for the 49ers to dispatch the Rams, who are flailing now with a forgotten coach, an exposed QB, and years of salary cap hell ahead of them.

But what about Seattle, Mark? They’re 7-2, Russell Wilson’s playing out of his mind, and they just added Josh Gordon!

Forget Josh Gordon. Bill Belichick, looking at the post-season with San Francisco’s pass defense looming large, tossed Gordon in the trash and gave up a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, who’s on target for 670 yards this year.

For all his talent, Gordon’s only making $2 million this year, yet Belichick couldn’t even get a conditional 7th round pick in return for him.

So he was waived, and 27 teams said “Nah” before the Seahawks said, “Oh, ok. FINE.” I can’t say this any better than @zjwhitman on Twitter:

Wilson is amazing, but he isn’t going to evade crushing sacks by inches forever. He’ll get injured, and once he does, what is Seattle? Pretty much the Jets.

But the real issue is coaching. The hyping of Sean McVay sure stopped on a dime, didn’t it? Pete Carroll remains formidable, but he’s as old as Charo (68) and about as likely to be coaching in 3 years.

I’ll admit, I was a huge skeptic about Kliff Kingsbury. How could a failed and unemployed college coach jump into the NFL at age 39 and do well?

But there he was Thursday night, facing the second-best coach in the NFL and confounding the Niners’ game plan in a way no one had done this year.

Sure, SF had to come back to beat Pittsburgh, but that was more about five turnovers than any game plan Mike Tomlin developed. It sure looked like Kingsbury focused on this game, too.

Arizona shut down the Niners’ run game (helped, of course, by their three best blockers being injured) and forced Jimmy G to air it out. The Handsome One stepped up, but who knows how that would have gone if Lynch hadn’t picked up Emmanuel Sanders before the trade deadline?

On offense, Kingsbury’s spread offense slashed SF in the second half in less than predictable ways.

Before the game, everyone was talking about the Cardinals running out of 10 personnel (1 RB/4 WRs, no tight ends) with no blocking help to push defenses into a lighter nickel formation. That generated a lot of yards, though it may not be a coincidence that their top two running backs are out injured. There’s no doubt that Robert Saleh had worked out a response.

No problem, because the Cardinals rescued Kenyan Drake from Miami and ran primarily out of 12 personnel, with two tight ends paving his way. The Niners, who had held teams below 100 yards a game on average, gave up more than that to Drake alone, and 153 yards total.

On passing downs, they swapped TE Charles Clay out for WR KeeSean Johnson and doubled the Niner’s YTD average yards allowed.

(Now, 88 of those 241 yards were mostly the result of bad tackling after the catch on one pass, but excluding outliers from stats is a suspect maneuver. Explosion plays always make up a big chunk of stats.)

Sure, the Niners were playing on a short week, and of course, they won, but everything points to a great rivalry going forward.

Arizona has beaten SF routinely since 2015 for reasons that remain mystical, and Kyler Murray has mastered aggressive sliding, which should allow him to survive indefinitely as a scrambling quarterback. (QBs who stay in the pocket get hit too, after all.)

The Cards did an amazing job of neutralizing the Niners’ devastating pass rush in the second half, thankfully in a way that few teams will be able to replicate.

But the key here is two young teams with franchise quarterbacks and innovative coaches. Kingsbury made some rookie mistakes, notably his time out that nullified his own team’s stuff on 4th and goal, but those are things he will improve on. And Arizona will get at least one more year of good draft picks to bulk up with.

This rivalry will be fun, and the next chapter is just two weeks away.

[h/t to BurningBunerson BurningBurnerson for catching the typo on Seattle’s record]

[and another h/t to Shaken Not Stirred for noticing the typo in my correction. Friggin Mondays.]