Of course, that one loss was in San Francisco when the 49er defense dominated the Arizona offense to the point of embarrassment–or at least to the realization that John Skelton falls short of decent NFL quarterbacking.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals are playing better.
They’ve won two games in overtime, and they’ve improved defensively. And they have an edge. Darnell Dockett, the Cardinals top-notch defensive tackle, said it best to the Arizona Republic.
“I don't like the 49ers,” Docket is quoted as saying. “I just don't. They hate me, I hate them, and there's nothing I would say to them. I'll pay them the compliment that they're playing great football. That's what a man would say, because I'm not a hater that way. Just because I don't like you doesn't mean I don't respect what you do.”
What it says, though, is that this will not be the cakewalk that came about three weeks ago in Candlestick Park. The Cardinals have kept a candle lit in hope of making the playoffs. Winning out might do it, as crazy as the scenario could be, thanks to the dropping fortunes of the Lions and Bears.
They’ll be hungry for this one, and Jim Harbaugh knows it. The 49ers appear to be a team ready to focus on the game at hand and not get too carried away with congratulating themselves.
A win in Phoenix on Sunday would propel the 49ers up a notch toward the goal of getting at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. With that in mind, here are four playoff scenarios that could come to the 49ers.
Back in July, if you had asked even the most avid 49er fan that there was a chance that the team would host a first-round playoff game during “wild-card weekend,” the fan would have shouted in glee. It was way beyond expectations.
Now, expectations have changed.
At 10-2, the Niners have the hot 9-3 Saints on their tail. The 49ers have the tiebreaker edge, but two losses–such as an upset in either Arizona or at Seattle coupled with a home loss to Pittsburgh–would most likely drop the 49ers into the first-week playoff scramble.
Losing to any of those teams at Candlestick seems highly unlikely. A victory would most likely put them on a plane to New Orleans, where a rested, riled Saints offense would await, afterburners in full bloom.
No one wants to play the Saints in the Superdome right now, not even a reincarnated 1985 Chicago Bears defense.
As great an accomplishment the NFC West title is, doing everything in December, starting with a win over the Cardinals, will help the 49ers avoid having to visit New Orleans. And that would do wonders for the Niners’ ultimate goal–a February win in Indianapolis.
The Niners do control their destiny, and that’s all a team can ask for. They achieved the division title, and now it’s time to gear up for a focused run through the playoffs.
This is when a win over a weaker-but-hungry Arizona team comes into play. A win on Sunday and two more in the next three weeks will get them a week off in January.
That’s another week of rest for Patrick Willis’ hamstring, another week for Braylon Edwards and Alex Smith to work on their deep throws, another week for Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to come up with some wrinkles, another week for Lord Fangio to optimize his killer defense.
Getting a win Sunday appears to be one of the easier rings to grab. But it will help if everyone–especially Alex Smith–comes out of it healthy. If so, their chances at home on December 19 with Pittsburgh increase, and that would mean having to go one-for-two when closing out at Seattle and St. Louis–the former being much more dangerous.
If they do that and play host to the Saints in January and find that their defense cannot hold Drew Brees and Co., I don’t think a 49er fan will leave disappointed.
Harbaugh and staff did everything they could to get the team to that point. There’s no doubt that the Saints have as much if not more offense as the Packers; even a very good Niner defense may not be up to the task.
And it would still be a great year, with much to anticipate in 2012 and beyond.
Right now, the Saints are 2-2 outdoors. They play this week in Tennessee, and this game will be a good indication of the Saints’ prowess. I say bet on a New Orleans win.
One factor that plays into the Saints effectiveness at home is how crowd noise delays the reaction time of visiting offensive linemen. That makes the New Orleans pass rush much better. But there’s something about the comfort level when the Saints play at home.
On the fast turf, Sean Payton (pictured) likes spread sets and the chances that Drew Brees will find the open man. On the road against a good defense, he probably has to keep a back in to help protect.
That’s one less target for Brees to find. And with his team fighting crowd noise, Brees will probably have less time to find it. A tick-slow move by the offensive tackle gives Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and others a step to get to Brees.
In contrast, if it is played in the Superdome, it will be Alex Smith and his linemen who will be struggling to get a passing game going (remember the blitz-plagued effort in this year’s first preseason game?). The Niners' chances for victory will drop considerably.
But it’s important to remember many things have gone right for the Niners. They are relatively healthy. Fangio hasn’t had to resort to exotic blitz packages as the front seven of the 49er defense is the best in the NFL.
Having a rested, healthy Niner team hosting a divisional playoff game on a January weekend in Candlestick Park will make the Saints less effective, with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks coming fast on the edges and Willis and Bowman inside.
Home cooking increases San Francisco’s chances almost immeasurably. It’s enough to stifle the Saints and propel the Niners into the NFC Championship game.
I actually think winning in Lambeau is easier than winning in New Orleans. A mid-January game in Green Bay will most likely be ill-suited to Aaron Rodgers and his amazing offense.
Leather footballs become hard and slick. The footing can be icy and soft. Fingertips are numb. That isn’t good for a pass-oriented team. Green Bay is definitely a team that is vulnerable on defense–soft against the run and not that great against the pass.
A road-grader 49er offense behind big offensive linemen could keep the Packers offense on ice, literally.
A fast, active front seven on defense that can pressure Rodgers as well as cover the likes of Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson? That and bad weather might be enough for the 49ers and their tepid offense to prevail.
That’s why it is safe to say that the 49ers are better suited to play in those conditions than any other contender.
Could the Niners win this game in September when it’s a dry, firm Lambeau? No. Could they win it in January if the weather is relatively mild? Probably not. But the Niners' chances of getting to the Super Bowl are greater if they do not have to go through New Orleans.
A key turnover, good running game and stout defense could be enough to get the Niners out of Green Bay with a victory. The chances now appear rather unlikely, but this is a game that is not nearly as scary as the New Orleans option.
I’ll call it right here. There’s no team in the AFC that can beat the 49ers on a neutral field, including the Baltimore Ravens. Take away the crowd noise – in the Super Bowl it’s more like muted cocktail party noise – and the Ravens’ pass rush isn’t as fierce. Same goes for Pittsburgh and the Patriots and the rest of the conference.
The 49ers learn from their mistakes.
They will improve on offense. The addition of Kyle Williams and the return of a healthy Braylon Edwards to go along with a surging Michael Crabtree could, on a nice grass field in the calm clime of Lucas Oil Stadium, be the right ticket for the 49ers.
The 16-6 loss in Baltimore turned on two plays. Reverse those and negate the Ravens' pass rush and you drastically improve the 49ers' chances for a win.
Granted, this is a lot to ask, and many games have yet to be played. Who knows about the injuries to come, or how hurt players will play when they return?
But right now the 49ers find themselves in this attractive, confusing milieu of possibilities, and you cannot say it is out of the question that they could come out of it all with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Difficult and unlikely? Yes. But then, that’s what many thought of the Niners' chances of even making the playoffs, didn’t they?