With their thrilling victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the last regular-season game ever at Candlestick Park, the San Francisco 49ers have clinched their third straight playoff berth. However, their ultimate seeding in the playoffs is far from secure, as they could finish with the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, or No. 6 seed in the NFC, depending on the outcomes of the Carolina, New Orleans and Seattle games. In fact, they are still in heated contention for the division crown with the Seattle Seahawks. For them to claim the division title for a third straight season, they would need the St. Louis Rams to upset the Seahawks in Seattle and a victory over their other division rival in the Arizona Cardinals.
But claiming a victory in Arizona is about more than stealing away the division from the hated Seahawks. It is even about more than securing potential home-field advantage in the playoffs. A win against the Cardinals is absolutely crucial for the 49ers’ momentum going into the postseason. Winners of their last five games, including a convincing victory against the same Seattle Seahawks, the Niners are peaking at the right time. With the return of Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick and Niner offense are finally showing the dynamic playmaking ability we all witnessed at the end of last season. The defense has been as stout as it has been all season, allowing 14.8 points over that span. And most importantly, the 49ers are as healthy as they have been all season. As of Friday’s practice, only one player has been ruled out of Sunday’s game (WR Mario Manningham) and only one player has been deemed questionable (LB Dan Skuta). A decisive victory over the Cardinals would keep the Niners on a roll, giving them plenty of momentum to ride into the playoffs; a loss would set them back and force them to recover in time for a road playoff game in the Wild Card Round.
So what makes the Arizona Cardinals a perfect final test for the 49ers heading into the playoffs?
The Cards feature one of the premiere defenses in the NFL, as they rank No. 1 in the NFL in run defense. It all starts up front with Arizona, as they feature as stout a front three as any 3-4 defense in the NFL. Left defensive end Calais Campbell is a beast of a man, and is one of the few who can challenge J.J. Watt for the title of best defensive end in football. At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Campbell is able to dominate offensive tackles and use his deceptive quickness to blow by interior linemen. It has showed this season in the stats department as he has accumulated 53 tackles, 8.0 sacks, and 13 tackles for loss, ranking eighth, 11th and sixth in those respective categories at his position. His partner-in-crime, right defensive end Darnell Dockett, is no slouch either. The steady veteran has produced 43 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 11 tackles for loss, ranking him eleventh, fourteenth, and fourth respectively at the defensive tackle position. Campbell and Dockett and experts at quickly collapsing the pocket and occupying offensive linemen, thus allowing their linebackers to do the cleanup work.
Also, it does help when you have the linebackers the Cardinals do behind the defensive line. This unit is headlined by inside linebacker Daryl Washington, who was a revelation last season for the Cards, racking up 134 tackles and 9.0 sacks. His season got off to a rocky start this season, after he sat out for four games due to a suspension, but he remains one of the top players at his position, particularly in coverage. While he hasn’t been the stat-stuffing maven he was last season, Washington’s two interceptions and ability to cover running backs and tight ends has earned him a score of 1.66 Positive Win Probability Added on Advanced NFL Stats, ranking him fifteenth among all linebackers.
However, Washington has actually taken a backseat to his teammates – linebackers Karlos Dansby and John Abraham. Dansby has resurrected his career after returned to the Cardinals after a three year stint with the Dolphins, recording 117 tackles, 109 of which were solo tackles, 6.5 sacks, and four interception, two of which he returned for touchdowns. At age 32, Dansby has evolved into the complete linebacker, proving his ability to bring down running backs and drop back in coverage, earning him a 2.05 Positive Win Probability Added, ranking him fourth among linebackers. His fellow veteran, outside linebacker John Abraham, isn’t having a shabby season either. After being released by Atlanta in the offseason, Abraham has proved he can still produce at a Pro-Bowl level. He has accumulated 11.5 sacks since Week 7, the most in the NFL in that span, in addition to four forced fumbles. He has provided Arizona with the pass-rushing element they had been lacking in their front four, and it is his play this season that has allowed them to develop into a top-ranking defense.
It is their front seven that makes the Arizona Cardinals such a dangerous foe for the 49ers. Their secondary is fairly vulnerable outside of stud cornerback Patrick Peterson. Since rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu went down with a torn ACL, the secondary has been consistently burned in coverage by opposing receivers. With Peterson likely locked onto Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will likely have field days against Yeremiah Bell and Co. The Cardinal offense has the potential to be a strong unit, but has been plagued by inconsistency. Carson Palmer continues to have an up=and-down season, throwing for high yardage numbers in addition to high interception numbers. While the running back duo of Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington has been better than expected, neither have them have showed to be reliable every-down workhorses. Arizona does have a pair of deadly wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald has been respected as one of the elites at his position for some years now, and Floyd has taken the NFL by storm in his sophomore season. Neither should be taken lightly.
The Arizona Cardinals have been the hottest team in the NFL, recording wins in seven of their last eight, including convincing victories in Seattle and against Indianapolis. By no means should they be taken lightly. A victory against such a talented team should be an immense confidence-booster for this Niners club that has been on a roll in the past few weeks. The last two Super Bowl winners have been teams that put it all together in the last few weeks of the season and rode the momentum through the playoffs. Beating the Cardinals will be the first step in ensuring the San Francisco 49ers are that team this season.