NFL Preview - Arizona (5-10) at San Francisco (10-4-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Even with last weekend's disappointing loss to one NFC West rival, the San Francisco 49ers still have a chance at clinching a first-round bye for the upcoming playoffs.
The more pressing goal, and the one fully in the Niners' hands, is claiming a second straight division title, something that San Francisco will try to do with a win this Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals.
Having already secured a playoff spot, the 49ers had a chance to lock up the NFC West with a win at Seattle last Sunday night. However, the Niners uncharacteristically struggled on defense and were routed 42-13 by the Seahawks.
San Francisco's second loss in nine games (6-2-1) tightened things up in the division. The Niners fell to 10-4-1 on the season, while the Seahawks upped their record to 10-5-0.
However, the 49ers still only need to win this weekend to clinch first place. They could also do so with a Seahawks loss to the St. Louis Rams, while a victory and a loss by the Green Bay Packers at Minnesota earns San Francisco a first-round bye.
But the Niners will need to rebound after allowing Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to throw four touchdown passes and opposing running back Marshawn Lynch to rush for 111 yards.
Seattle also blocked a field attempt and took it 90 yards for a score.
"We just didn't come out and play well," said San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who completed 19-of-36 pass attempts for 244 yards with a late touchdown pass and one interception.
Kaepernick also led San Francisco with 31 yards rushing, while Frank Gore managed just 28 yards on six carries. The run game saw limited work as San Francisco trailed 28-7 at halftime.
San Francisco does have a good habit of bouncing back under head coach Jim Harbaugh as the club hasn't lost consecutive games since Weeks 15 and 16 in the 2010 campaign.
Arizona, meanwhile, failed to record just its second winning streak of the season thanks to a 28-13 loss to the Chicago Bears last weekend. The setback came one week after the Cardinals halted a nine-game slide with a 38-10 triumph over the Detroit Lions.
Not one of the higher scoring teams in the league, Arizona saw Chicago score a pair of touchdowns off a fumble recovery and interception.
"Anytime you spot a really good football team points its tough to overcome," said Cards wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who had 100 yards receiving in a game for the first time since Sept. 23.
Fitzgerald ended with 111 yards on eight catches, while musical chairs at the quarterback position continued.
Ryan Lindley threw for 141 yards and was intercepted before giving way to Brian Hoyer, who made his Cardinals debut after being claimed off waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 10.
Hoyer is expected to start this Sunday, which will be the first of his career.
He'll join Lindley, John Skelton and the injured Kevin Kolb as quarterbacks to start a game for the Cardinals this season.
Arizona's nine-game slide, which came after a 4-0 start, featured a 24-3 home loss to San Francisco on Oct. 29. Skelton started and threw 52 passes as Arizona was held to just seven yards rushing.
Alex Smith threw three touchdown passes for the 49ers, who have won six of their last seven versus the Cardinals and three in a row at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
San Francisco ranks second in the NFL in total defense, giving up just 296.5 yards per game, and is third in scoring at 17.3 points yielded per contest. Neither of those numbers mattered much versus Seattle, which racked up 346 yards of offense.
The 49ers played without high-motored defensive end Justin Smith, who sat out with an elbow injury as he saw his string of 185 straight starts come to an end. Ricky Jean Francois would likely start again for Smith this weekend if the latter still can not go.
Linebacker Aldon Smith was held without a sack for the second straight week. He still leads the NFC with a team-record 19 1/2, which leaves him 3 1/2 shy of breaking Michael Strahan's single-season record.
Houston's J.J. Watt leads the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks.
San Francisco's fourth-ranked ground game never got a chance to get on track and Kaepernick lost two key targets in tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Mario Manningham.
Davis is third on the club with 40 receptions and second among San Francisco receivers with five touchdowns, but is questionable with a concussion.
Manningham, meanwhile, is second with 42 catches but is lost for the season because of a knee injury.
Randy Moss should replace Manningham in the starting lineup alongside Michael Crabtree, who is 67 yards shy of becoming the first Niners wide receiver to record 1,000 in a season since 2003.
"Well, he's been doing that," Harbaugh said of an increased workload for the veteran Moss. "There's been an added workload for Randy and he's been handling it well."
Arizona is likely to take a long look at the quarterback spot this offseason after failing to find a capable starter this year.
"At that position, you got to have stability, you got to have consistency of play and we haven't had that. I think the thing that's been the hardest is the turnovers, especially the turnovers for points," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Hoyer will close out the campaign under center, but who knows if he will be the only quarterback to see action for Arizona this weekend.
An undrafted 27-year-old out of Michigan State, Hoyer began his career in New England backing up Tom Brady and completed more passes last weekend than he had the entire two previous seasons combined.
Arizona did put forth a defensive effort to build on as the club ranks third against the pass after holding Chicago to just 145 net passing yards. Still, it had to be frustrating to not get a win and the Cardinals' only touchdown came in the fourth quarter when rookie safety returned a blocked field goal by Adrian Wilson 82 yards for a score.
Linebacker Daryl Washington had eight tackles versus the Bears and had a pair of sacks earlier this season versus the Niners. He is one sack shy of becoming the first player in club history to log 100-plus tackles and 10 sacks in the same season.
Arizona punter Dave Zastudil put six of his eight punts last weekend inside the 20, giving him an NFL single-season record 44 punts downed inside the 20- yard line this season.
San Francisco knows what is has to do this weekend.
"No excuses or justifications. Our team needs to bounce back," said Harbaugh.
A home matchup against one of the weaker teams in the league should help. The Niners are 11-0-1 at Candlestick Park versus the NFC West since Oct. 26, 2008 and is giving up just 14.0 points per game at home this season.
That will likely factor into the Cardinals ending their season on a down note.
"I think as a competitor you're frustrated, you're angry that we're not better. You want to win and our guys have worked hard. The thing that drives you is it's a division opponent, the last game. It would make you feel a heck of a lot better if we can play well and win this game," said Whisenhunt.
Sounds like it is going to be long offseason for Whisenhunt.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Cardinals 9
12/27 13:24:15 ET