TEMPE, Ariz. – About this time last season, the Arizona Cardinals were preparing to finish their regular season with a game against the playoff-bound San Francisco 49ers.
A year later, things are different. Very, very different.
With a win Sunday, the Cardinals would finish the season 11-5, and as of now there is still a chance for them to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“I just think about where we are as a team as opposed to where were last year or the year before,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Thursday. “Playing meaningful games in December, you know, having a chance to win 11 games — matching our best in franchise history; oldest team in the NFL, I mean that’s a pretty impressive year, to say the least.
“Obviously we need some help, but we can control what we can control, and that’s (coming) with a great plan and great effort this weekend.”
It’s an understandably tough spot to be in, not exactly controlling one’s playoff fate. When the Cardinals take the field Sunday, they could be 60 minutes away from their season being extended. Or, conversely, they could be 60 minutes away from their final game of the campaign. Lose, and the latter is a certainty. Even with a win, it’s still a likelihood, and that weighs on a player.
“But that’s on us though,” Fitzgerald said, pointing to some of the games the Cardinals have lost this season. “We could easily be fighting for home field advantage and a Week 1 bye. That’s how the seasons go, but you’ve got to take care of business when you have the opportunity.”
As of now, the Cardinals only have one guaranteed game with which to do so, and it is against one of their more disliked NFC West rivals. It will be the third time in the last four years the teams finish their respective regular seasons against one another, but the first time so much is on the line for each team.
For the 49ers, the NFC West title is still on the line, and with that would come a first-round bye and home field advantage.
For the Cardinals, a win coupled with a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay would send the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“It’s very nice, very nice to have that,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said of having something to play for this week. “It’s always good when you have two teams that are competitive and that are ready to get after it, like our team and the Cardinals. Like I always say, may the best man win.”
The last three times and eight of the last nine, the “best man” has been wearing 49ers colors. This has been a rivalry, but more like the one between the hammer and the nail than the Hatfields and McCoys. The most recent meeting between the teams was on Oct. 13, which the 49ers won 32-20, and the average score over the nine game stretch is 26-11.3.
“You don’t need any extra motivation to play against the 49ers,” Fitzgerald said. “I said it earlier, but if we can only win two games in the whole season, I would pick both of them to be the 49ers. That’s the kind of way we have it. They’ve beaten up on us the last few times and we lost a tough one in Candlestick earlier this season.
“We have to win this game for us to have a chance to go to the playoffs.”
So much like last week, when the Cardinals talked about the need to beat a Seattle Seahawks team that has kind of been perched atop the NFC West, this game is also important as a way to show the division — and the league — that Arizona is a team to be reckoned with.
With a win, the Cardinals would finish the season 3-3 against the NFC West after starting the year 0-3 against the St. Louis Rams, Seahawks and 49ers.
“It’s huge, that’s what we want to do,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s the last game of the regular season and hopefully we’ll still be in the playoffs because we win this game and that would be a benchmark for us as far as coming back and beating the three teams we lost to earlier.”
It’s the least the Cardinals can do and the only thing that’s completely within their control.
“We have a chance to beat the San Francisco 49ers at our place,” Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said. “We know they’re going into the playoffs so we have a chance to send them into the playoffs with a loss, and that’s really the only focus we can have.”