By Jerrell Richardson
Arizona Cardinals (5-10)
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt
Players to Watch: Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson
For a team playing for playoff positioning in the season finale, the 49ers could not have asked for a better opponent. Arizona started the season on the right track winning four in a row to sit atop the division, but since then has lost 10 out of 11 and now is staring up the rest of the NFC West. Although San Francisco stumbled last week, a win not only clinches the division but gives them a chance at a first-round bye. This game is more about just the final outcome, though, as a less-than-impressive performance against an inferior opponent, even in a win, could cause a drop in the team’s confidence. The good news is that regardless of the outcome they will be in the playoffs, and if they are the best team in the NFC, the road to the Super Bowl won’t matter.
When Arizona Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
The Cardinals are not the worst offense in the league, but they are certainly in the conversation. Despite having All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the offensive has struggled to say the least. It starts up front where the line has yielded a league high 56 sacks. With no protection, the Arizona quarterbacks (yes plural) have been under constant duress and have either gotten injured or been unable to execute the system. Veteran back-up Brian Hoyer gets the start on Sunday, and having spent less then one month with the team, he will be limited in what he can run. For a team already ranked 28th in the league in passing, it appears as though they will be hard pressed to score points. However, they still have Fitzgerald, who can beat any coverage, so the 49ers must stay focused defensively.
The Arizona backfield is better than their dead last ranking in the NFL. Beanie Wells has been limited due to injuries. Along with LaRod Stephens-Howling the two form a respectable duo, but due to Wells’ absence and the other offensive issues, the running game has suffered. Not working in the Cardinals favor is that they are playing a defense that has a lot to prove in their final regular season test. If Larry Fitzgerald does not have the game of his life, and if the 49ers can cause two or more turnovers, this game will not be close.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
If there is one thing that Arizona does well it’s defend the pass. They enter the game 3rd in the NFL in this area, and have held their own against the Lions, Falcons, Packers and other high-powered passing teams. This stat is a bit misleading, though, as teams can run the ball effectively against them and thus don’t turn to the air as often. Michael Crabtree will be matched up with Arizona’s star cornerback Patrick Peterson, whose seven interceptions tie him for second in the NFL. In the past, Crabtree has gotten the best of Peterson, and if this continues on Sunday, then Colin Kaepernick should have no problem finding his favorite target and the rest of the receiving core. If Peterson can lock up Crabtree, however, it could disrupt the passing game.
When the 49ers lose, it means that they didn’t run the ball. This was the case in last week’s embarrassment of a loss, so the game plan this week should focus on getting back to smashmouth football. They are going against a defense ranked 28th against the run, so if they are unable to establish a running game and control the game in the trenches, then something is wrong. The team will continue to get LaMichael James more touches and hope that he can fill the void left by the injury to Kendall Hunter, but the player of the game needs to be Frank Gore. The game plan has featured more passes to help set up the run, and Kaepernick will certainly get a chance to make some plays with his arm, but the plan has to be to get Frank Gore more than 20 carries.
This regular season finale means so much and so little. It’s imperative to clinch the division and ensure that they at least have the chance to play a playoff game at home. However, they have shown that they play very well on the road, so if this is a Super Bowl-worthy team, San Francisco shouldn’t need any decisive advantages to knock of the NFC’s best. The most important thing for the team is to get back to 49er football. Even in the unfortunate event of a loss, the team is still in position to get back to the NFC Championship Game, where last year they let a golden opportunity slip through their hand.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.