The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers square off at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday in a game that will conclude each team's regular season. Arizona is 10-5 and San Fran is 11-4 coming into the game.
They are two very evenly matched teams and both have a lot to play for. Arizona must win for even a chance to make the playoffs and the Niners are playing for seeding. In fact, San Francisco could lock up a first round bye if they win and the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Rams at home. So both teams will be motivated to get the win.
What we don't know, obviously, is who will win. That will play out on Sunday.
But now, a couple of days before the contest, we make a case for each team. David Fucillo from Niners Nation gives us the reason why the 49ers will win, while I will make the case for the Cardinals.
Why the Niners will win:
The 49ers offense has started to turn things around after some inconsistencies early in the season. One key has been the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The passing game has opened up over the last few weeks thanks to Crabtree's return. The real key against a defense like the Cardinals is establishing balance. In order to do that, the passing game will be key.
Early in the season, defenses were loading up the box against Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter because there was a lack of consistency in the passing attack. The return of Michael Crabtree has slowly begun to open up some holes in the defensive front. If Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin can have success against Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers, it will open things up for Frank Gore in the middle. Crabtree/Boldin vs. Peterson/Powers strikes me as the key matchup on this side of the ball.
The 49ers will win this game if they can get pressure on Carson Palmer. The 49ers run defense is already strong, so the key will be keeping Palmer from getting comfortable. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have emerged as a strong pair of receivers. Tramaine Brock and Carlos Rogers are having solid seasons in the 49ers secondary, but they will have their work cut out for them against Fitzgerald and Floyd.
If the 49ers can keep Palmer on the run, the 49ers can contain the Cardinals passing attack. I realize Andre Ellington is dangerous, and Rashard Mendenhall has been strong in the red zone, but the 49ers defensive strengths play to that. It will come down to figuring out the passing attack. Do that, and the 49ers win this game.
Why Arizona will win:
Well, the Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in the league. They have won seven of eight and eight of 10. They are coming off of perhaps the season's biggest win as they beat Seattle in Seattle -- the first team to do that in over two years.
Arizona is 6-1 at home and have looked great there this season. At home, the Cardinals are averaging 27.5 points per game.
Offensively, they have been able to run the ball. They rushed for 139 yards against Seattle on the road. They ran the ball for over 100 yards against the Niners the first time and Rashard Mendenhall was not completely healthy then. He has been over the last few weeks and has been effective enough to get the tough yards between the tackles. Andre Ellington has been dynamic. he is a key piece of the offense and when he gets at least 10 carries, the Cardinals are 6-0.
Defensively, Arizona is number one against the run. San Francisco has the third-best rushing attack. However, against the league's second-best rushing attack in Seattle, they held the Seahawks to only 103 yards, but 32 of those yards were on two Russell Wilson scrambles. The Niners will not be able to sustain their running game to move the ball, which will force them to throw the ball. Their 31st-ranked passing offense will not be enough.
Looking back at the Week 6 matchup, what the game really came down to was turnovers. Arizona had four, including a Larry Fitzgerald fumble when the offense was in position to take the lead. They have won the turnover battle in five of their last eight games, winning all of them. They have lost the turnover battle three times, but still have won two of those games. If they can at least stay even with the Niners in the turnover battle, they should win. They have not lost this season (five games) when winning the turnover battle. When even, Arizona is 2-2.
While this game is big for both teams, there will be no more urgency than what Arizona brings. They must win to even have a chance to make the playoffs. Their fate will not be known before the game because the other game that will determine their fate (Tampa/New Orleans) will be played at the same time. The team is hungry. They are not about to lose at home with their playoff hopes on the line.
Now, for the discussion. As both sites will see this post, discuss why you feel your team will win and why.