NFL Preview - Arizona (3-2) at San Francisco (3-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Both the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals take aim at a third straight victory on Sunday afternoon when the NFC West rivals clash at Candlestick Park.
The defending NFC champion Niners have rebounded from a pair of losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, by a 56-10 margin, to best St. Louis and Houston. San Francisco has put up 69 points over those two games while allowing just 14.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, lost two of three to begin the season, but have tightened up defensively in victories over Tampa Bay and Carolina, yielding a combined 16 points.
San Francisco leaned on its ground game to beat Houston 34-3 on Sunday night, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick completing six passes, none in the second or third quarter, on just 11 attempts, though he did hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 64-yard score in the fourth quarter.
Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon ran for first-half scores, with Gore leading the team with 81 yards on 17 carries.
"I think this team is getting its confidence back. Our defense has played amazing, our offensive line played well. We ran the ball well and we got a win," said Kaepernick.
Four turnovers for San Francisco also helped. Cornerback Tramaine Brock had a pair of picks, one he returned for a score, and defensive tackle Tony Jerod- Eddie also had an interception. Safety Donte Whitner forced a fumble.
The Cardinals' defense was even more dominating last weekend in a 22-6 win over the Panthers. Arizona forced four turnovers, logged seven sacks and recorded a safety in its second straight win.
Linebacker Daryl Washington, in his first game back since serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, had nine tackles, two sacks and an interception, while fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby added eight stops, two sacks and a pick.
Defensive end Calais Campbell had a pair of sacks, one resulting in a safety, as the defense helped overcome three interceptions by Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer.
Palmer threw for 175 yards with a touchdown pass to Jim Dray, while Rashard Mendenhall had a rushing touchdown.
"Those are the type of games that we're going to need to keep putting together," Arizona head coach Bruce Arians remarked. "You can call them ugly wins, or any kind of wins you want, as long as they're wins, I love them."
Arizona is aiming to win three straight for the first time since opening last season 4-0.
However, the Cardinals have lost four straight in San Francisco since there last victory there on Sept. 7, 2008.
The Niners are 15-5 at home in this series and have won seven of the previous eight encounters overall.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
San Francisco has posted 76 rush attempts to 38 pass attempts over the last two games, racking up 396 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns in that span.
That hasn't bothered Kaepernick, who has thrown for 280 yards in the past two games.
"The only stat I really care about is whether we won or not," he said.
Niners wide receiver Anquan Boldin would probably like to get more involved this weekend as he faces his former club for the second time. Boldin was a second-round pick by the Cardinals in the 2003 draft and won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
In seven seasons with Arizona before getting traded to the Baltimore Ravens ahead of the 2010 campaign, Boldin had 586 receptions for 7,520 yards and 44 touchdowns. His catches and 27 100-yard receiving games were both Cardinals records that have since been broken by Larry Fitzgerald.
When Boldin faced Arizona in Baltimore in 2011, he made seven catches for 145 yards.
"He's a true professional. He knows how to prepare. He knows how to go out and get open. He knows what we're trying to get done on plays and he goes out and performs," Kaepernick said of Boldin.
San Francisco may be forced to throw the ball more given that Arizona ranks third in the league in run defense, giving up 79 yards per game. The Cards have also yielded just one rushing touchdown on the year and that was a five- yard score by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Arizona didn't make things easy on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, with its seven sacks the most for the club since getting eight versus Dallas on Sept. 13, 1987. The Cards got one sack from rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson grabbed an interception, giving him three picks and nine passes defended in his last two games.
Mathieu ranks second on Arizona with 34 tackles and also has an interception this season, making back-t0-back starts with free safety Rashad Johnson sidelined after losing the tip of his left middle finger on a tackle in Week 3.
"(He's brought) a tone of energy and a playmaker. He has been a relentless practice player. He gets made if he doesn't get every rep and he's showing up on Sundays," said Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians of Mathieu. "He's getting his hands on balls, he's sacking quarterbacks."
The Cards have not allowed a touchdown in its last 113 minutes and 43 seconds of game time, spanning 24 opponent possessions. The return of Washington certainly makes the unit stronger and he made a statement versus the Panthers.
"Definitely. But I didn't want to be a Superman," he said. "I wanted to just come in and play '58' football and make sure that I help my teammates out any way that I could. I just wanted to come out and play a solid game."
He did that and helped overcome continued struggles by Palmer, who has seven interceptions over his last three games.
"Not good enough," Palmer said of his performance. "I mean I've played long enough in this league to know that a win is a win, an ugly win is a win, but I have to continue to work to get better and make more plays for us."
Palmer now goes up against a Niners defense that has held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 67.6 this season, second-lowest in the NFL.
However, pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith remains out due to personal issues and star linebacker Patrick Willis did not play last weekend due to groin issue.
Willis was limited in practice on Wednesday and defensive tackle Ray McDonald did not participate due to a torn right biceps muscle. However, he plans to play through the injury this season.
Kaepernick took over the starting role last season because of his ability to make big plays down the field, but it appears as if the rest of the league is starting to adjust to the young quarterback. Credit to Harbaugh, who has recognized this and gone to his run game. The threat of Gore and company should keep the Cards honest this weekend, but Boldin will have his hands full going up against Peterson.
Palmer is catching a break with no Smith and a hobbled Willis, but his lack of a running game will continue to limit his chances. Mistakes again could come back to haunt Arizona by the bay.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Cardinals 10
10/10 15:13:41 ET