This is it. The biggest game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in several years will take place Sunday afternoon as the San Francisco 49ers take on the Arizona Cardinals.
Simply put, the Red Birds need to beat the 49ers and the Saints have to lose to Tampa Bay for Arizona to capture a NFC wildcard berth.
Let's take a look at this huge NFC West matchup:
San Francisco (11-4)
The 49ers clinched a NFC playoff berth with their victory over Atlanta on Monday night. They're 5-2 on the road and 4-1 in divisional play this season. They've won five straight and defeated the Cards, 32-20 on Oct. 13 at Candlestick Park.
One of the keys to this contest will be how much pressure the Niners can dial up on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. San Francisco has 16 sacks during their five-game winning streak but Arizona's offensive line has been playing better of late. Ahmad Brooks has seven sacks in eight career games against the Cards. The 49ers have also recorded at least one interception in seven consecutive games.
San Francisco has a number of talented offensive players like running back Frank Gore (1,114 rushing yards, 9 TD) and QB Colin Kaepernick (2,887 passing yards, 19 TD, 8 INT, 500 rushing yards) but an important key will be the play of wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis.
Crabtree is starting to look like his old self after missing most the regular season with an achilles injury suffered during the off season. He has had fine success going up against Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson in the past and had five receptions for 102 yards against Atlanta on Monday night.
Boldin will be competing in his first game back in Arizona since leaving the desert for Baltimore in 2010. The Florida State product leads the Niners with 76 receptions for 1,030 yards.
Davis is one of the best tight ends in the NFL despite being shut out on Monday night. Davis had a monster game against the Red Birds in Week Six with eight catches for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns. He has 12 touchdowns on the season. Arizona has struggled all season against tight end so this will be an enormous matchup to watch.
A victory would give the Cardinals 11 wins, which would tie their franchise high, last set in 1975 when the team was in St. Louis. They could still be on the outside looking in though if the Saints don't lose at home to the Bucs Sunday. The Saints are 7-0 at home this season.
The Red Birds are just as hot as the Niners – they've won seven of their last eight. Their 17-10 victory over Seattle last Sunday was one of their biggest in team history and gave them a great deal of momentum heading into this regular season showdown.
Carson Palmer (elbow, ankle) has been practicing this week and will go of course – all hands on deck. Despite throwing four interceptions, the USC product came up big in the clutch with a game-winning 31-yard TD pass to Michael Floyd with 2:13 remaining last week in Seattle. Palmer needs 133 yards passing to become the first player in league history to throw for 4,000 yards with three different clubs.
Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall combined for 125 yards rushing last week and will need to run effectively again against the Niners' stellar defense. Larry Fitzgerald (76-841-10), Floyd and tight end Rob Housler (34-376-1) will be counted on to find seams in San Francisco's D. Play-action will be a key component for victory.
Defensively, the Red Birds are the best rushing defense in the NFL, allowing 84.5 yards per game. It should be very interesting to see how Gore and Kendall Hunter perform against Karlos Dansby and company in front of a very loud crowd. UOPS will be rocking Sunday.
Prediction: This is the biggest game in the valley since 2008. Led by Dansby, Arizona's swarming defense will stifle Gore and company and lead the Cardinals to victory. They'll be plenty of scoreboard watching. Can the Bucs help out? Arizona 23, San Francisco 20.
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Tags: Andre Ellington, Anquan Boldin, Arizona, Arizona Cardinals, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Football, Frank Gore, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Crabtree, Michael Floyd, NFL, Rashard Mendenhall, San Francisco 49ers, Vernon Davis