The Arizona Cardinals head into their Week 17 matchup with plenty at stake for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
With a victory over the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals would secure their first 11-win since moving to the Valley back in 1988 and put themselves in a position to secure the second Wild Card spot in the NFC should Tampa beat New Orleans.
The task at hand will not be an easy one, as the 49ers not only have plenty to play for — including a first-round bye and division title — but have won three straight dating back to 2011.
In the teams’ first head-to-head showdown back on Oct. 13, the Cardinals hung tough at Candlestick Park for about three-and-a-half quarters before the wheels fell off. Costly fumbles by Alfonso Smith and Larry Fitzgerald and an 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive sealed Arizona’s fate in a 32-20 loss.
Keys for the Cardinals
1. Don’t focus on the scoreboard
In an effort to add more meaning to their Week 17 slate of games, the NFL moved the Buccaneers-Saints game back to the same time slot as the Cardinals-49ers.
While they need Tampa Bay to win in order to have a shot at postseason play, the Cardinals can’t make scoreboard watching their focus on Sunday.
If they do, a very talented 49ers team will have no problem taking advantage.
“The only thing that’s going to matter to us is what’s happening on the field,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Friday. “That game doesn’t matter unless our scoreboard is reading right.”
Let’s hope that decree on Friday holds true if the games remain tight late Sunday afternoon.
A win in Seattle and a Tampa Bay win in New Orleans will mean absolutely nothing without an Arizona win, as well.
2. Limit Kaepernick’s weapons
Back in their 32-20 loss to the 49ers in Week 6, the Cardinals’ secondary struggled to contain tight end Vernon Davis, as he went off for 180 receiving yards and two long touchdowns.
And that was with a healthy Tyrann Mathieu and Rashad Johnson.
Sunday will be an even bigger challenge, as wide receiver Michael Crabtree is back and looking more and more like the big-play threat he was a season ago.
Patrick Peterson, who was voted to his third Pro Bowl this week, has not fared well against Crabtree of late — allowing 13 catches for 144 yards and four touchdowns. Although it’s a lot to put on his shoulders, if Peterson struggles against Crabtree, it might be a long afternoon for the Cardinals’ defense, as Kaepernick will have Davis, Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as credible down-the-field options.
3. Win the turnover battle
Arizona has won both contests this season when Carson Palmer has thrown three or more interceptions — including last week’s dramatic 17-10 come-from-behind victory in Seattle — but it’s an awfully slippery slope to live that way.
One the Cardinals paid for dearly back at Candlestick Park earlier this year.
Two Palmer interceptions, two late fumbles and a safety were more than enough to turn a back-and-forth contest into a comfortable victory for San Francisco.
When the Cardinals have been at their best offensively this season — i.e. vs. the Colts, Falcons and Rams — they’ve protected the football. Todd Bowles’ unit might have bailed out Arizona’s offense against the Seahawks, but banking on a repeat performance this week would be an unwise decision.
University of Phoenix Stadium will be packed Sunday, but it would all be for naught if the home crowd is silenced early on with a handful of costly mistakes.
Keys for the 49ers
1. Get after Palmer
Palmer has never been known as an athletic quarterback, and his immobility is only highlighted by the fact that he’s dealing with a sprained ankle.
Couple that with his tendency to turn the ball over when under pressure, and it makes sense that San Francisco would do everything it can to pressure the former No. 1 overall pick out of USC.
But Arizona has gotten creative in its protection, using tight ends and backs to help an offensive line that can get outmatched on the edges. Still, San Francisco shouldn’t have much of an issue dialing up the pressure on Palmer, and that will likely mean trouble for the Cardinals.
2. Find Vernon Davis
It’s no secret that despite the success of the Arizona Cardinals’ defense this season, it’s struggled against tight ends this season.
The 49ers have one of the league’s elite receiving tight ends in Davis, and he went off to the tune of eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the teams’ first matchup this season.
San Francisco’s offense has struggled to find a rhythm throughout parts of the season, but Davis gives them an outlet when things aren’t going well. If the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder can continue being a safety net for Kaepernick, it’s only going to mean good things for the 49ers.
3. Start fast
Sunday’s game is obviously a high-stakes contest for both teams involved, and the Cardinals will come out as fired up as they’ve been all season. Couple that with a noisy University of Phoenix Stadium, and the ingredients are there for the Cardinals to build early momentum and roll from there.
The 49ers need to create something positive early to take the crowd out of the game and deflate a pumped up Arizona team. It doesn’t matter much whether that comes in the form of an early turnover or big play on offense, as long as San Francisco can manufacture some kind of momentum for itself.
Alex Williams contributed to this report