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NFL Preview - San Francisco (11-4) at Arizona (10-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Arizona Cardinals close out their regular season with a home encounter against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday with a chance to match a franchise record for victories in a season.
Of course, they could still miss the playoffs.
Such is the cruel fate of the NFL.
And while the Cardinals shoot for that record-tying 11th win, the Niners are looking to take care of their own business to keep their chances of an NFC West title alive.
San Francisco stands at 11-4 and has already clinched a playoff spot. The Niners are a game back of the first-place Seattle Seahawks, who lost last weekend to the Cardinals, meaning at least two NFC West teams will make the postseason.
The Cards need some help if it is to be three. Despite a solid 10-5 mark, they are tied with New Orleans for the second wild card position and the Saints own the tiebreaker. That means Arizona needs to beat San Francisco on Sunday and see New Orleans lose at home to 4-11 Tampa Bay.
Not great odds for Arizona and especially painful given it was the first team to hand Seattle a home loss in two years last weekend.
"We play to get into the playoffs and win the championship," said Arizona coach Bruce Arians. "It would be a shame (to miss the postseason), but that's the way it is. I'm not about changing rules or anything. Just a bad year for that to happen."
The Cardinals snapped the Seahawks' 14-game home winning streak with a 17-10 victory last weekend.
After Seattle went up by a point following a touchdown with 7:26 to play, Arizona responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive. Michael Floyd hauled in a 31- yard touchdown throw to cap the march with 2:13 to play and Rashard Mendenhall caught a pass in the end zone on the two-point conversion play.
It marked some redemption for Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who was intercepted four times on the day yet his club still found a way to win its third straight and seventh game in the past eight.
"This win defies the odds. We had four turnovers and still won," Arians said. "Fantastic venue, great fans and that's why we play the game."
The Cardinals, who have won four in a row at home, posted just their second 10-win season since moving from St. Louis and first since 2009. A victory this Sunday would match the single-season record of 11 set in 1925, 1948 and 1975.
They also hope it will give the franchise its third playoff berth in six seasons.
Arizona's victory over Seattle also kept San Francisco's chances of a third straight division title alive. The defending NFC champs pulled within a game of Seattle thanks to a 34-24 win over Atlanta on Monday night that locked up a postseason berth for the Niners.
The 49ers can clinch the division title and a first-round bye with a victory over the Cardinals and a Seahawks home loss to the St. Louis Rams and can also claim home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a loss by the Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, who visit the Falcons.
Atlanta nearly rallied out of a 10-point hole late versus the Niners, pulling with 27-24 with 2:09 to play and then securing the onsides kick.
Atlanta moved to the San Francisco 10-yard line with 1:31 to play and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a short pass intended for Harry Douglas that was disrupted by Tramaine Brock. The ball was tipped in the air, and Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman snagged it and went untouched the other way, diving into the end zone to cap an 89-yard return as a delirious Candlestick Park crowd celebrated.
"I don't think I've ever been involved in a game where something that good happened," said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned 50 on Monday. "That was one of the greatest plays I've ever see. It looked like a pick-and-roll in basketball ... and (Bowman) took it to the house.
That was the best birthday present I've ever gotten. Second, only to being born. That was awesome."
It was a wild ending to perhaps the final game played at Candlestick Park. The 49ers are moving to football-only Levi's Stadium in nearby Santa Clara next season.
Colin Kaepernick threw for 197 yards and a touchdown and added 51 yards and a TD on the ground for the Niners, who posted their second five-game win streak of the season. Frank Gore capped his 97-yard rushing night with a 1-yard plunge over the goal line to give San Francisco a 27-17 lead with 5:04 left to play.
San Francisco has won three straight and eight of its past nine versus Arizona, including a 32-20 win at home on Oct. 13. The Cardinals turned the ball over four times, leading to 16 Niner points, with Palmer picked off twice.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both the 49ers and Cardinals are led by excellent defenses, with San Francisco's unit ranking third in overall defense as well as fourth and fifth versus the pass and run, respectively.
Arizona's defense ranks sixth overall and is giving up an NFL-low 84.5 yards per game on the ground. That unit has struggled a little more versus the pass, yielding 229.1 YPG.
Both units feature excellent groupings at linebacker, with the Niners being led by Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.
Bowman is sixth in the NFL with 135 tackles and his pick-six on Monday night was the longest by a linebacker in team history. Willis, second on the club with 98 tackles, held the previous mark of 86 yards.
Arizona is led on defense by linebackers Daryl Washington, who had seven tackles and a sack versus Seattle and Karlos Dansby. Dansby tops Arizona with 117 tackles to go along with 6 1/2 sacks and four interceptions.
Dansby is the fourth player in the NFL since 1982 to log at least six sacks, four interceptions and two returned for a touchdown in a season.
"Continuing to play very well," Harbaugh said of the Cardinals. "Very aggressive defense. Very stingy defense, attacking defense. Offensively, playing very well. Improving, ascending team."
Arizona is hopeful linebacker John Abraham is able to play this weekend. He has a team-high 11 1/2 sacks on the season, but is a game-time decision due to a groin injury.
Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson faces a big challenge in shutting down Niners wideout Michael Crabtree, who notched a season-high 102 yards on five catches on Monday night, his fourth game since returning from a torn Achilles.
"He's a competitor. It's always a big-time game every time I get an opportunity to match up with him because I know he is going to bring his best, and that's the same thing I do as well," noted Peterson, who has three INTs on the season. "I'm a competitive cornerback and he's a competitive receiver. It's great matchup each time we go up against each other."
Crabtree is part of an offensive attack spearheaded by Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis (49 receptions, 805 yards, 12 TD). Boldin has six catches for 72 yards on Monday night with his sixth touchdown of the season.
Boldin went over 1,000 yards catching and combined with Gore's 1,114 yards on the ground, San Francisco has a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2000-01.
San Francisco always has to be aware of Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who in 19 career games versus the 49ers has logged 106 catches for 1,489 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has found the end zone nine times in the previous 12 meetings and finished with six catches for 117 yards with a score in the first meeting of the season.
The 49ers were paced that day by Davis, who had eight receptions for 180 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
Palmer, who has 21 picks to 22 touchdown passes this season, is 133 yards shy of becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards in a season with three different franchises. He has previously done so with Cincinnati (2006, 2007) and Oakland (2012).
It's do and then maybe still die for the Cardinals, who have made major strides this year under Arians but could still be left without a reward. They also won't catch any breaks from the Niners, who could finish as high as the top seed in the conference with a victory.
San Francisco, looking to return to the Super Bowl for a second straight season, won't be content with just a playoff spot.
"The same, win by any means necessary," Harbaugh said of his club's Week 17 goals. "Yeah, I think it was a great accomplishment (making the playoffs). It gives you a chance."
Arians deserves a ton of credit for getting the Cardinals to this point and the fact that his club is even in the mix for a playoff spot is impressive. However, the magic may run out as Palmer's turnover tendencies could show its ugly head against a very talented Niners defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 30, Cardinals 16
12/27 14:24:42 ET