Why the Arizona Cardinals Are the Perfect Final Test for the San Francisco 49ers

Joseph AkeleyAnalyst IDecember 25, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 30: Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers tries to run away from Adrian Wilson #24 of the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park on December 30, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers clinched a playoff spot on Monday night, but now is not the time to celebrate. 

With a win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Niners could secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Of course, they'll need some help.

To win the NFC West and take the No. 2 seed, they'll also need the Seattle Seahawks to lose to the St. Louis Rams. And to clinch the top overall seed in the conference, they'll need a Carolina Panthers loss to the Atlanta Falcons on top of the Seahawks loss.

However unlikely the previous scenarios are, the 49ers can't give up the opportunity of a first-round bye and home-field advantage by resting their starters. 

Even if Carolina and Seattle win, San Francisco will be the No. 5 seed with a victory. With a loss and a New Orleans Saints win, the 49ers would fall to the No. 6 seed.

With much on the line, the Niners will put forth their best effort on Sunday.

They'll head to Arizona to face the Cardinals, who have won seven of eight. Leaving the Grand Canyon State with a win won't be easy.

With the playoffs looming, here are three reasons why the Cardinals are a perfect final regular-season test for the 49ers.


It's a "Win-or-Go-Home" Game for Arizona

It's a must-win game for the 10-5 Cardinals.
It's a must-win game for the 10-5 Cardinals.Ralph Freso/Getty Images

For Arizona, the playoffs have already started. 

The Cardinals need a win and a New Orleans loss to get into the dance. Suffice to say, they're going to give it their all. 

The 49ers are one week away from "win-or-go-home" games of their own. They could use the experience of playing a desperate team—one with scary weapons to boot.


Challenge of Stopping Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd

Fitzgerald and Floyd combined for 161 yards and two TDs in Week 6 against the 49ers.
Fitzgerald and Floyd combined for 161 yards and two TDs in Week 6 against the 49ers.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Were the 49ers exposed on Monday night?

Armed with talented receivers Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Drew Davis, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 348 yards and two touchdowns against San Francisco. He accounted for a big chunk of his yards when the Falcons abandoned their run game and attempted to come from behind in the fourth quarter. 

This makes San Francisco's inability to stop him all the more disappointing. 

The Cardinals aren't quite as one-dimensional as the Falcons, but they're definitely a pass-happy team—and for good reason.

Fitzgerald and Floyd are one of the best receiver duos in the league. After watching White total 12 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown, the Cardinals are sure to air it out to their two best receivers early and often.

Cornerbacks Tramaine Brock, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown will be tested. The resolve of rookie free safety Eric Reid, who is coming off one of his worst NFL games, will be challenged.

With a potential matchup with star receivers Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson, Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery possibly looming in the Wild Card Round, the 49ers will benefit from facing off against Floyd (950 yards, five TDs) and Fitzgerald (841 yards, 10 TDs).

That being said, they'll be challenged just as much—if not more—by Arizona's suffocating defense. 


Road Environment Against a Great Defense

Kaepernick threw for 252 yards and rushed for 18 more in SF's 32-20 win in Week 6.
Kaepernick threw for 252 yards and rushed for 18 more in SF's 32-20 win in Week 6.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

To get through the NFC playoffs gauntlet, the 49ers will almost assuredly have to beat a couple of teams with great defenses (do the Seahawks and Panthers come to mind?). 

The Cardinals defense will be a difficult playoff warm-up for the 49ers. 

Arizona is No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 6 in total defense. It held the Seahawks to 192 total yards in its 17-10 win on Sunday in Seattle. 

On the road against the Saints and Seahawks, the two best teams the 49ers have played away from home this season, Colin Kaepernick has struggled. In those two games combined, he threw for 254 yards and four interceptions. 

This is Kaepernick's last chance before the playoffs to establish a rhythm on the road. 

In Arizona, the 49ers will have the opportunity to execute in a loud, raucous environment. They should get used to it, too. Assuming they don't win the NFC West, they'll likely need to win three playoff road games to advance to the Super Bowl.