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State of the rivalry: San Francisco 49ers

Our check-in on each divisional rivalry continues this week with the San Francisco 49ers.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Peterson chats with a familiar foe in a new uniform after a Redbirds victory last season.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Before training camp and the preseason start to truly ramp up, we’re checking in with each of our divisional rivals, looking at the Cardinals’ record since realignment in each series, notable streaks, best games, and standout players, as well as touching on the 2019 matchups.

We started last week with the Los Angeles Rams. This week, we turn north to the city by the bay and the San Francisco 49ers.

Records and Streaks

Cardinals’ Record Since Realignment: 17-17 (.500)

Like our rivalry with the Rams, we have played the 49ers to a dead heat since we moved into the same division in 2002. Also like the Rams, this rivalry has been up and down—but this one even more so. Led by Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, the Niners won 5 out of the first 6 matchups in the newly formed NFC West. But the Cardinals found their way right as the Niners lost theirs and won 6 out of the next 8 games. The Redbirds then went into a tailspin as the Kurt Warner/Ken Whisenhunt magic began to fade; they lost a staggering 10 of the next 12 games as Jim Harbaugh experienced great success first with Alex Smith and later with Colin Kaepernick. But as soon as Harbaugh left town, Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians ignited the 8‑0 streak the Redbirds are currently riding and got this divisional rivalry back to an even .500.

Current Streak: Won 8 in a row

This current 8-game win streak over the 49ers started with a 47-7 demolition in the desert in 2015 that featured two pick-sixes of Kaepernick before I could even buy a beer and get to my seat (true story). That game was the beginning of the end of Kaepernick’s time in San Francisco. He would start one more game the next season, but the other QBs the Niners have started explains why the Cardinals haven’t lost to them in four seasons: future Cardinal Blaine Gabbert (twice), Brian Hoyer, and C.J. Beathard (three times). To be fair, those 8 wins feature two apiece from Drew Stanton and Josh Rosen, but it’s clear the Cardinals have been a bit fortunate of late in this matchup.

Longest Win Streak: Won 8 in a row from 2015-2018

Since we just discussed this streak above, the second-longest streak was four in a row from 2005-2006, part of that 6-2 streak through the 2008 season. Let’s take a brief look at that era of this rivalry—it’s an odd one. The four-game win streak actually came during Dennis Green’s final two seasons, when the team was juggling Heisman winner Matt Leinart and former league MVP Warner. The Niners were led by Mike Nolan for most of this period, and they had a revolving door of unimpressive QB starters, including a pre-breakout Alex Smith, Tim Rattay, J.T. O’Sullivan, and Trent Dilfer. The latter actually beat the Redbirds in his start in 2007, but the Cardinals would sweep the Niners the following season on their way to a Super Bowl appearance. Those would be the last wins over San Francisco for over three years, however.

Longest Losing Streak: Lost 5 in a row from 2009-2011

Although the Cardinals had a better record at 10-6 the season after their Super Bowl appearance, they were still swept by the Mike Singletary-helmed 49ers in 2009. The wheels fell off after Warner retired following that season, as the Redbirds failed to score more than 7 points for the next three games in the rivalry as the team played such QB luminaries as Derek Anderson, John Skelton, and something called a Richard Bartel. The Redbirds actually upset the 10-2 49ers in 2011… but then promptly lost another 4 games in a row as part of the 2-10 stretch mentioned previously. The Niners had a dominant defense and solid QB play from Smith/Kaepernick during most of this era, while the Cardinals were largely floundering post-Kurt Warner and pre-Carson Palmer. But once Palmer and BA got going, we haven’t looked back in this rivalry (see above).

Best Games and Players

Best Game: 49ers 23, Cardinals 20 (Week 17 of 2013)

While we have the same record against the 49ers as the Rams since 2002 (17-17), our rivalry with the Niners has generally had closer individual games. There has been a blowout or two here and there, but not nearly as many as in the Rams rivalry (on both sides). But, like with the Rams, neither team has really been good at the same time, meaning that there have been few games that truly mattered in the standings.

But this game from the end of the 2013 season is a notable exception. The 49ers were once again one of the best teams in the league the year after their own Super Bowl appearance, while the Cardinals were a surprise playoff contender in Bruce Arians’s first season. They met with heavy playoff implications in Week 17 with the 49ers at 11-4 and the Cardinals at 10-5. The Niners could clinch a division title and the Redbirds could get into the playoffs with a win. Both teams came ready to play. Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers raced out to a 17-0 lead in the 1st quarter. But Carson Palmer and the Redbirds rallied, eventually tying the game at 17-17 (that number again) with a TD strike to Andre Roberts with just 3:20 left. That’s when things got crazy.

Kaepernick led a quick, 7-play, 41 yard drive culminating in a 56-yard FG by future Cardinals Ring of Honor member Phil Dawson (ZING!). But the drive lasted less than two minutes, giving Palmer plenty of time to get into Jay Feely range, and he converted from 43 yards with just 34 seconds left. But a nice kickoff return and two Kaepernick passes later (one to Anquan Boldin!) and the Niners were once again in range for Dawson. He would connect from 40 yards as time expired to keep the Cardinals out of the playoffs. Fortunately, the 49ers would neither win the division nor return to the Super Bowl that year, but that was cold comfort to Cardinals fans.

Cardinals MVP: WR Larry Fitzgerald

I have a feeling this section is going to be quite repetitive in these columns, as Fitzgerald has simply dominated the divisional competition since coming into the league. Against the 49ers, he has 173 receptions (his second-most against any opponent) for 2,306 yards (most) and 18 TDs (tied for most). His best individual day came in a losing effort in the Trent Dilfer game mentioned above (9/156/2 TDs). He also put up a 9/134/2 TDs line in the 47-7 game from 2015. Let’s hope he can create some instant magic with Kyler Murray and put up similar numbers against the 49ers in 2019—heck, I’d even take numbers like that over both games.

Cardinals Achilles’ Heel: LB Patrick Willis

Although Frank Gore put up good numbers against us, we also bottled him up on several occasions. Willis, however, consistently wreaked havoc against the Redbirds. In 13 career games (10 wins), Willis racked up 111 tackles (8.5 per game), 2 INTs, 2.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. That’s basically a Pro Bowl season against one team (and in just 13 games). It was undoubtedly a good thing for the Cardinals that his career lasted just 8 seasons due to injuries, but you hate to see someone who could have been an all-time great have to hang it up early.

2019 Outlook

Week 9 – Home

Week 11 – Away

The Redbirds face the Niners twice in three weeks before their Week 12 bye week in 2019. Although the first game is a home game and Patrick Peterson will be back in the lineup, the timing couldn’t be worse—it’s a Thursday night game and we’ll be coming off a road game at the Saints the previous week. (The Niners have a home game against the Panthers.) If the offense is clicking and the team is healthy, we might be able to squeeze out a victory… but those are big ifs. After that Thursday night game, we have 10 days off before a road trip to Tampa Bay with the annual trip to San Francisco the next week. Not ideal timing either. And while we dodged Jimmy Garoppolo twice in 2018, we likely won’t get so lucky this year. With the Niners widely pegged as an ascending team—and one that figures to have better injury luck—it’s going to be mighty tough to extend that 8-game winning streak in 2019. In fact, it might very well be the 49ers who are on a win streak in this rivalry after Week 11.

Final Thoughts

This has been an entertaining and even rivalry over the last 17 seasons, one with long streaks, close games, and a healthy dose of feistiness—especially in the stands at University of Phoenix… I mean, State Farm Stadium on Sundays. The Redbirds are currently riding high in the series, but they have their work cut out for them to keep the winning streak alive. Can Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray keep the magic (and, okay, luck) alive in 2019?

That leaves just one rivalry left to check in on, and it’s the biggest one—the Seattle Seahawks. In the meantime, let’s talk Cards/Niners in the comments. What memories come to mind for you, good or bad? How do you think it plays out in 2019? Leave a shout below!