The resurgent Arizona Cardinals, still basking in the afterglow of a 19-13 overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, face their biggest challenge yet against the newly minted NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners (10-2) may have iced their first NFC West crown in nine years, but there is still a lot at stake for San Francisco, who remains in the hunt for a first-round postseason bye. The Cardinals need a win against their division rivals to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. After an abysmal 1-6 start to the season, the Cardinals now have a pulse after going 4-1 since the start of November to inch to within two games of a wild card berth.
This weekend’s matchup seems to boil down to the battle between defenses. The Cardinals have a tall order before them, facing the league’s most feared “D” – who will surely be raring to go and ready to pounce.
The Niners defense leads the NFL in points per game, allowing a mere 13.4 – a mark that is the best in franchise history. They are also the only team in the league to not allow a rushing TD.
The Cardinals are well aware that the keys to this game will be to gain more rushing yardage while limiting turnovers.
The last time these two teams faced each other in Week 11, the Cards turned the ball over a whopping five times in a 23-7 defeat.
“You can’t do what we did. We gave them two early turnovers, field position,” head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Our defense bailed us out but we never really got a chance to do anything offensively and that’s what’s going to be so critical for us.”
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald also acknowledged the importance of his team buckling down on turnovers.
“You go back to the Monday Night Football game two years ago, we turned the ball over seven times,” Fitzgerald said.
“We turned the ball over five times here at home and turned the ball over five times up there last time, so we have to give ourselves a fighting chance by not turning the football over.”
And, while much has been made of the Niners sterling defense, Arizona’s has held its own as of late. Added Fitzgerald: “Our defense is playing good ball right now.”
Good ball, indeed.
The Cardinals had a season-high five sacks last week vs. the Cowboys. Whisenhunt credits his team’s ability to put more pressure on the quarterback, as well as not succumbing to one’s own personal goals.
“Sometimes it’s about matchups, sometimes it’s the scheme of defense that you’re playing against your opponent,” Whisenhunt stated.
“You’d like to think that it doesn’t matter, that we are going to be versatile enough that we can have those days where we get different guys with individual sacks but I know those guys are driven to get a whole bunch on their own,” he said. “I’m sure every one of those guys wants to get those five sacks for themselves.”
There’s no question that everyone will be gunning for Niners quarterback Alex Smith, who has been sacked 34 times this season, but not once by Cardinals defenders in their first meeting this year.
“Our goals aren’t to get sacks, it’s to get quarterback hits,” says defensive end Calais Campbell. “So, if we go out there and get quarterback hits, sacks are going to come.”
Arizona Sports’ Craig Grialou contributed to this story.