NFL Preview - Arizona (11-4) at San Francisco (7-8)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - In winning nine of their first 10 games, the Arizona Cardinals seemed well on their way to their first division title since 2009.
Things haven't gone according to plan since, but the Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC West crown this Sunday when they visit the disappointing San Francisco 49ers in a regular-season finale.
Arizona was 9-1 following a sixth straight victory on Nov. 16, but the club then suffered back-to-back losses to Seattle and Atlanta on the road to tighten up the standings in the NFC West.
Wins over Kansas City and St. Louis then helped Arizona lock up its first playoff berth since 2009, though the Cardinals were then routed by the Seahawks 35-6 last Sunday to fall into a tie for first place in the division.
The loss to the Seahawks also gave Seattle a sweep of the season series, s. the Cardinals will need a victory and a loss this Sunday by the Seahawks to the visiting Rams to clinch the NFC West and a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs.
Arizona also still has a shot at claiming home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, a scenario it can secure with a win and a loss by both the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers to the visiting Detroit Lions.
As was the case last week, the Cardinals will have to find success without their top two quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is done for the season because of a torn ACL and backup Drew Stanton was unable to play versus the Seahawks due to his own knee ailment.
The Cardinals are hopeful Stanton will be able to return for the postseason, especially after Ryan Lindley struggled versus Seattle. He was just 18-of-44 passing for 216 yards with an interception.
Of course, the defense didn't give him much help either, yielding 596 yards of offense to Seattle. That was the most allowed by the franchise since December of 1958.
The effort of the defense was summed up early in the fourth quarter, when Seattle's Marshawn Lynch dodged and bullied his way to a 79-yard score to put the game away.
It was Arizona's first loss at home this season.
"That's not the outcome we were looking for but I'm still proud of our players," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "We had it to a one-score game and then it fell apart."
San Francisco has not had the type of season it had hoped for as it will miss the playoffs for the first time in four seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and the club continues to be plagued by rumors of his possible departure at season's end.
San Francisco was eliminated from the playoff race with a loss to Seattle on Dec. 14, then lost its fourth game in a row this past Saturday with a 38-35 overtime setback to the San Diego Chargers.
The Niners racked up a franchise-record 355 yards rushing in the game, but blew a 21-point lead at halftime as the Chargers scored two touchdowns in the final nine minutes of regulation before getting a game-winning 40-yard field goal in overtime.
San Francisco lost three fumbles in the game, including one in overtime when wide receiver Quinton Patton was striped on a 20-yard end-around, setting up Novak's winner.
"We did a lot of things well. We just had three turnovers. That's the difference in the game," said Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "We have a fumble on the goal line, a fumble that ends in a touchdown and a fumble in overtime. That's at least a 14-point swing."
Kaepernick passed for 114 yards with a touchdown, but added 151 yards rushing on seven carries. A bulk of that came on a 90-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Running back Frank Gore broke off a 52-yard scoring rush in the opening quarter, finishing with 158 yards on 26 carries.
The Niners had been to three straight NFC Championship Games -- making one Super Bowl appearance -- in Harbaugh's first three seasons, but won't finish with a winning record this season.
Harbaugh, who is 43-19 with the 49ers, has reportedly been offered the head coaching job at Michigan, his alma mater.
"There's not much to say except keep fighting and get our last regular-season win," the coach said.
The Niners have won nine of their past 11 versus the Cardinals, but lost to them for the first time in five meetings with a 23-14 setback in Arizona on Sept. 21.
The Cardinals have lost five straight in San Francisco and are trying to sweep the season series for the first time since 2008.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cardinals looked like the team to beat when Palmer was under center and even figured to be a contender as long as Stanton played decent, but the likes of Lindley or rookie Logan Thomas aren't likely to scare opposing defensive coordinators.
In Lindley's defense, going up against the Seahawks is no easy task, but his inability to engineer a touchdown drive caused head coach Bruce Arians to suggest early this week he was thinking about giving Thomas the start this weekend.
The 6-foot-6 Thomas was taken in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, actually leading to the release of Lindley, who then rejoined the Cardinals last week following the injury to Stanton.
Thomas, though, has struggled in practice and reports surfaced late in the week that Arians may in fact start Lindley instead, something he made official on Friday.
"He's going to give us a better chance to win this game," Arians said of Lindley. "Logan is going to be a hell of a player one of these days, but right now he's not ready."
There is a lot of pressure on Arizona quarterbacks given the club ranks just 30th on the ground with 80.7 yards per game.
Cardinals rookie receiver John Brown caught two of his five touchdowns this season back in Week 3 versus the Niners, while Larry Fitzgerald leads the club with 61 receptions and 755 yards.
Fitzgerald was targeted 11 times by Lindley versus the Seahawks, but only made four catches and continues to nagged by a knee injury. However, he is still just one touchdown catch shy of becoming just the 10th player in NFL history with at least 90 TD receptions and 12,000 receiving yards.
Arizona's defense has yielded 20 points or fewer 12 times this season, but was gutted by Seattle last week. But despite the Seahawks' 267 rushing yards, the Cardinals still rank eighth against the run.
Linebacker Alex Okafor had the Cards' lone sack last weekend, his team-leading eighth of the season. He is looking to become just the third linebacker in team history to have a 10-sack season.
Like the Cardinals, the Niners have a strong defense that did not perform up to par in Week 16. San Francisco had three interceptions versus San Diego, but allowed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to mount the comeback, with his second TD pass of the fourth quarter coming with 29 seconds left.
Perrish Cox, Antoine Bethea and Chris Culliver all had picks, with Bethea taking his 49 yards for a score.
Cox, meanwhile, nabbed his team-high fifth interception of the season, but also suffered a shoulder injury that is a concern.
Fellow defensive back Eric Reid, meanwhile, suffered his third concussion in two seasons and it would be a surprise to see him play this weekend.
One thing that has plagued San Francisco this season is Kaepernick's inability to move the ball through the air and he has been unable to pull of the big plays in the passing game that earned him the starting job a few seasons ago.
The Niners rank 31st with just 191.6 passing yards per game and Kaepernick's passer rating is just 85.1.
Kaepernick, though, is hoping that Sunday won't mark Gore's final game in a San Francisco uniform. The 31-year-old pending free agent is just 38 yards shy of his eight career 1,000-yard rushing season.
"He's a huge asset and I'm hoping he's back here. (I) feel a lot more comfortable with (Gore) in the backfield," said Kaepernick.
Former Arizona and current Niners wide receive Anquan Boldin is just 19 yards shy of his seventh career 1,000-yard receiving season.
Injuries dictate a lot in the NFL as the Cardinals are currently learning.
While the chance at a week off and some home-field advantage is certainly a goal that Arizona would love to reach, the reality is the Cards are going to the playoffs regardless, so Arians has some wiggle room this weekend.
It doesn't matter if Lindley or Thomas gets the call really because even a victory won't guarantee anything, especially with the Seahawks having a favorable matchup this weekend.
Arians would be wise to take it easy on his starters in this game.
San Francisco, meanwhile, is likely to be hitting a crossroad not long after this game ends, with Harbaugh seemingly on his way out. But the club has had a lot of success under the coach and should give its all in trying to send him out a winner.
Sports Network predicted outcome: 49ers 16, Cardinals 10
12/28 09:03:18 ET