By Gabe Schapiro
This Sunday at 1:25pm the San Francisco 49ers (11-4) will be facing off with the Arizona Cardinals (10-5) in the regular season finale, at the University of Phoenix Stadium. The 49ers are in second place in the NFC West, one game behind the Seattle Seahawks. They will clinch a division title with a win Sunday and a Seahawks loss. They have already sealed a playoff birth. The Cardinals are in third in the NFC West, one game back of San Francisco. To get into the playoffs Arizona must win, along with a New Orleans Saints loss.
Last weekend the 49ers outlasted the Atlanta Falcons, winning 34-24, in Candlestick’s swan song. The game remained close throughout, with a huge NaVorro Bowman 89-yard interception return with 1:10 remaining in the game hammering the final nail in the coffin. Colin Kaepernick completed 13-of-21 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown, to go along with 51 yards on the ground and a rushing score. Frank Gore rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Michael Crabtree continues to shake the rust off, and had five receptions and 102 yards. Vernon Davis was uncharacteristically held without a catch on three targets.
San Francisco had more trouble than some expected last weekend with the struggling Falcons, but still got the job done. They have won five straight and are looking to make it six before heading into the playoffs. To get to number six they’ll have a tough task, having to beat one of the league’s hottest squads in the Cardinals. They’ve won three straight, including a big upset over Seattle last weekend, and are 7-1 in their last eight contests.
Arizona’s offense has been very middle of the road this season. At quarterback veteran Carson Palmer can still make plays, but is mistake prone. He is among the league leaders with 21 interceptions. At wide receiver he has the always dangerous Larry Fitzgerald to throw to. He has been slowed due to injuries this season, but remains a threat. Michael Floyd has emerged as a strong secondary threat, and leads the team in receiving yards. Rashard Mendenhall has been their go-to back for much of the season, but Andre Ellington has proven to be an explosive change of pace option. As a unit they rank 16th in the NFL in points per game.
The Cardinals defense is far and away their strongest asset. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is having a great season, Patrick Peterson has stepped into his own in the secondary, and the pass-rushing two-headed monster of Calais Campbell and John Abraham have been a force. They allow the sixth fewest points per game, and are especially stout against the run. Surrendering just 84.5 rushing yards per game, they are the league’s best.
This matchup will be a classic case of great running game going up against a great run defense. In their week 6 meeting, Frank Gore still managed to run for 101 yards on 25 carries, but the Cardinals have been at their best recently. Look for Kaepernick and an ever-improving Crabtree to make some significant moves in the passing attack, where Arizona is much more vulnerable.