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How will 49ers respond after 1st loss?

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SANTA CLARA — It was not business as usual this week at 49ers headquarters.

On the most talkative 49ers team in years, the players didn’t seem eager to discuss their first loss of the season. The locker room was mostly empty Wednesday and Thursday. Players hung out in the mail room or the eating room or the bathroom while reporters stood and looked at their phones.

For the first time this season, the 49ers seemed apprehensive. The previous 10 weeks, the 49ers locker room was a nonstop party.

When they blew out the Carolina Panthers a few weeks ago, the 49ers were an undefeated juggernaut. Now, they’re an injured team coming off a loss, facing the toughest four-game stretch of the season.

How will the 49ers respond to a loss? In terms of being stand-up guys to the media, who aren’t very intimidating, the 49ers didn’t respond well.

The 49ers’ next four opponents, in order, are the Arizona Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers, the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints.

The weakest opponent of the four is Sunday’s upcoming opponent, the Cardinals.

The 49ers need to beat the Cardinals.

Las Vegas oddsmakers expect the 49ers will win big — they’re 10-point favorites. But the game should be much tighter than that.

Here are five things to know about the 49ers matchup with the Cardinals.

1. The Cardinals are an ascending team: The Cardinals’ record is merely 3-6-1. But they have a rookie head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who’s still learning, and their players are picking up his system week by week. They run it better now than they did a month ago.

The Cardinals also have a rookie quarterback, Kyler Murray, who plays like a five-year veteran.

The 22-year-old has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only five interceptions this season.

And even though the Cardinals have won only three games, they’ve hung tough against most opponents. Last week, they lost by only three to Tampa Bay. The week before, the Cardinals lost by three to the 49ers and were coming on at the end.

The Cardinals have improved since then.

“They’re a very good team” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Right when we had them, they were floating around the .500 record. You could see why they had been in every game. When you played them in person, we understood even more. They’re talented on offense and defense. They got a very talented quarterback who’s getting better and better. I see them as a good team now and they are only going to get better.”

2. The 49ers are not ascending. They’re injured: Just a few weeks ago, they seemed like the best team in the league. Now, after losing to the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers might not even be the best team in the NFC West. At least not for the time being.

The 49ers are beat up.

The 49ers may not even suit up a full 46-man active roster Sunday against the Cardinals. The 49ers listed 10 players on their injury report Friday afternoon, and only seven can be inactive on game day. Meaning a few injured players who can’t play could suit up anyway just to fill a roster.

“We were very close to doing that the last couple weeks,” Shanahan admitted. “It all could work out if there’s not another injury or something, but (it’s tough) if one guy goes down in pregame warmups or on the first play of the game.”

3. One of the injured players is kicker Robbie Gould: The 49ers listed him as “doubtful.”

Gould missed last week’s game against the Seahawks. And the 49ers lost after his replacement, rookie Chase McLaughlin, missed a 47-yard field wide left by about a mile in overtime.

Gould signed a four-year, $19 million extension with the 49ers during the offseason after holding out of training camp. He has missed a whopping seven field-goal attempts this season, but historically is one of the most accurate field-goal kickers in league history.

McLaughlin is a 23-year-old undrafted rookie who played college football at Illinois. If the 49ers and Cardinals play a close game Sunday, McLaughlin could determine the outcome.

“I just told him how much faith we have in him,” Shanahan said. “I mean, I don’t know him very well, he’s been here for a week. Watching him at practice you can see how talented he is and why he deserves to be there, but you never know until someone gets in a game how they’re going to handle the pressure.

“After he missed it, the way he walked around in the locker room, he’s not a guy who is just going to go into a shell. I think he’s confident in his ability. I think we are too.”

4. Other injured players may include Emmanuel Sanders, George Kittle and Matt Breida: Sanders is “questionable,” meaning he can play if he can tolerate the pain of a rib cartilage fracture. He couldn’t tolerate the pain against the Seahawks and didn’t finish the game. Rib cartilage fractures make breathing painful. Sanders may not play.

And Kittle and Breida both are listed as questionable. Breida has an ankle injury, and Kittle has a knee injury.

“He played through the game two weeks ago with the same deal,” Shanahan said of Kittle, “so that’s why he’s a guy that you never count out. We’re trying to be smart with him, though. That’s why we’ve got him as doubtful.”

Kittle, Sanders and Breida arguably are the 49ers’ three best offensive skill-position players. Without them, the Cardinals defense can sell out to stop the 49ers’ run game, and force Jimmy Garoppolo to drop back 40 to 50 times and throw to receivers who dropped nine passes against the Seahawks.

Sounds like a reasonable strategy in theory.

5. The Cardinals pass defense is terrible: Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that strategy probably won’t work in the real world for them. They sold out to stop the 49ers running game two weeks ago, and Garoppolo carved them up. Posted a quarterback rating of 136.9.

Sure, Kittle and Sanders played in that game, and Garoppolo may not have them in this game. Still, he has a 91.1 passer rating when targeting Deebo Samuel, a 92.8 rating when targeting Kyle Juszczyk, a 99.8 rating when targeting Kendrick Bourne and a 145.8 rating when targeting Raheem Mostert. Garoppolo still has weapons.

And the Cardinals don’t have players to stop them. Arizona’s pass defense has allowed an average quarterback rating of 112.8 this season — second-worst in the NFL.

Final score: 49ers 24, Cardinals 21.

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