By Jerrell Richardson
Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
Head Coach: Bruce Arians
Players to Watch: Carson Palmer, Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby
The 49ers can breathe a huge sigh of relief that their final regular season game against the Arizona Cardinals is not a win or go home situation. San Francisco clinched a playoff spot with their win over the Falcons on Monday Night, taking away some of the suspense that could have surrounded this week’s game. Nevertheless this is an intriguing matchup as the Cardinals with a win and some help could still squeeze into the playoffs, while the 49ers are jockeying for their final playoff position. Both teams are talented, playing well, and have a something to play for in week 17.
When Arizona Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
The game plan for the Cardinals is going to center around its two best offensive weapons, wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald leads Arizona in catches with 76, while Floyd is the team’s big play threat, as he leads them in receiving yards with 950. Both players can cause the 49er secondary fits, and stopping them will be one of many keys to this game. The San Francisco secondary is ranked fourth against the pass and have the players and talent to at least slow down the Arizona passing game, which comes into the game ranked 13th.
Arizona will need a big game from Palmer and his receivers as their running game is not their strong suit. Their workhorse is Rashard Mendenhall, who leads the team in carries, but he is only averaging 3.1 yards per rush. The two in the Cardinals one-two punch is Andre Ellington, a big play runner who, despite almost 100 less carries than Mendenhall (207 to 109), has only 18 less yards (640 to 622) on the season. The 49ers have the fifth ranked run defense, and with the solid play of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, should be able to shut down Mendenhall and with sure open field tackling will neutralize Ellington.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage Cardinals
The last time these two teams met the 49ers put up 32 points. This time around they don’t figure to have as much success as the Cardinal defense has continued to improve and by the numbers are the NFL’s hardest team to run against. For a 49er team that likes to run the ball and still getting over the loss of fullback Bruce Miller this is not good news. While the 49ers have to assume it will be difficult to run the ball consistently, there is a reason the 49ers are ranked 3rd in the league running the ball and if they stay committed should have a decent day running the ball. A good game on the ground will make life easier on Colin Kaepernick.
The work in progress that is the 49ers passing game continues to look better. So despite being ranked second to last throwing the ball, San Francisco should be able to move the chains with the pass. They are facing an average Cardinals secondary that is ranked 15th against the pass. Arizona has one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Patrick Peterson, but he can only cover one guy, and it will be interesting to see if he is lined up against Crabtree of Boldin when both of the 49ers top receivers are on the field. Whoever he is not own figures to be targeted along with Vernon Davis who is looking to bounce back after zero catches last week.
Pressure On Cardinals
For the first time in weeks, the pressure will be on the 49ers opponent. Arizona has to win to keep any playoff hopes alive while the 49ers could hypothetically see no changes to their postseason path with a win or loss. However, this game is important for division bragging rights, and the Cardinals will send a resounding message to the NFC West if they are able to beat the Seahawks and 49ers in back-to-back weeks. To do so would put the rest of the division on notice that next year, there will be another team contending for the NFC West Crown.
Take away the playoff and division implications and this is still on heck of a match up. The Cardinals have won seven of their last eight games, and the 49ers have won five in a row, meaning something has to give Sunday in Arizona.The bottom line though is that regardless of the outcome, the 49ers will be in the postseason, which is exactly where they wanted to be after 16 games.
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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. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.