49ers-Cardinals Preview

The San Francisco 49ers are trying to improve their playoff

positioning after guaranteeing themselves a spot with last week’s

win.

That result also dimmed the Arizona Cardinals’ postseason

chances despite an impressive record.

The 49ers could completely dash those hopes with an eighth win

in nine tries over Arizona, which can only join them in the

playoffs with a victory Sunday and some help elsewhere.

San Francisco (11-4) heads to the desert having already clinched

a postseason berth with Monday’s 34-24 home victory over Atlanta. A

win Sunday combined with a Seattle loss to St. Louis would secure a

third straight NFC West title. Those results along with a Carolina

loss at Atlanta would give the Niners home-field advantage

throughout the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They’ve wrapped up a third straight trip to the postseason by

winning five straight, a strong finish to a sometimes turbulent

season which included two sets of back-to-back losses.

“Everybody expected us to just coast right through the season

and be easy. But as you know we went through a little bit of

adversity, and people were like, ‘Well, maybe they’re not the team

that we thought they were,'” said Patrick Willis, closing in on 100

total tackles for the sixth time in seven seasons. “But we just

stayed together and we have another chance now to go make something

happen.”

It appeared Arizona (10-5) might also get that chance when the

49ers were clinging to a late three-point lead Monday with Atlanta

deep in their territory. A loss by San Francisco would have given

the Cardinals control of their playoff fate, but NaVorro Bowman’s

89-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:11 to go ended

those hopes.

Arizona has won seven of eight, playing much better after a 3-4

start which included a 32-20 loss in San Francisco on Oct. 13.

After a surprising 17-10 win at Seattle last Sunday – the Seahawks’

first home loss in nearly two years – the Cardinals have their

second 10-win season since moving to Arizona in 1988. They can tie

a franchise record with their 11th victory, last achieved in

1975.

“(An 11-5 record) will be nice,” said Bruce Arians, among the

Coach of the Year favorites after winning the honor last season

with Indianapolis. “It’s a nice foundation, but I’m really not

about that stuff. We play to get in the playoffs and win the

championship.”

However, the Cardinals are in danger of becoming the second

11-win team to miss the postseason since the NFL switched to its

current playoff format in 2002. New England was left out in 2008

despite finishing 11-5.

To reach the playoffs, Arizona not only needs a win of its own,

but also a home loss by New Orleans against Tampa Bay, which lost

41-0 at the Superdome last season. The Saints are 7-0 at home.

“It’s not in our control,” Arians said. “I want to be 11-5 and

let the chips fall. There is some joy in that. If we’re watching

the playoffs, we’re watching a bunch of teams we beat. That’s a

little bit sour.”

With Carson Palmer matching a career worst with four

interceptions, the Cardinals relied on their defense and allowed a

season-low 192 yards to Seattle. Palmer came through for the

decisive score, finding Michael Floyd on a 31-yard touchdown pass

with 2:13 remaining.

The victory stopped Seattle from clinching home-field advantage

in the playoffs for at least another week.

“To have a road win like that, it’s a playoff atmosphere,

because they were playing for everything,” Arians said. “I would

feel very confident going anywhere in this National Football League

playing anybody.”

Palmer, 133 yards shy of becoming the first player in league

history to throw for 4,000 with three different clubs, will be up

against another opportunistic defense that could make him pay for

more shoddy decision-making. San Francisco has recorded an

interception in seven straight games with two against the

Falcons.

Palmer will also likely face some serious pressure from the

49ers, who have recorded 16 sacks during their five-game winning

streak, though they managed only one against Atlanta. Ahmad Brooks

has seven sacks in eight career games versus Arizona.

The Cardinals will try to limit Vernon Davis, who caught eight

passes for a career-high 180 yards and two scores in the teams’

first meeting. The tight end didn’t have a reception last week

after catching a touchdown pass in five consecutive games.

Sunday marks Anquan Boldin’s first game at Arizona after he

recorded 7,520 yards and 44 TDs through his first seven NFL seasons

as a Cardinal.