Call Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals the start of Phase 2 of the 49ers’ season.
Phase 1 was fighting for the NFC West championship, which concluded with a victory over the Rams last Sunday that clinched the title.
Phase 2 covers the final four four games of the regular season before Phase 3, the playoffs.
For the Niners, being successful in Phase 2 might well determine how well they do in Phase 3.
Though San Francisco has won five straight against Arizona, and beat the Cardinals 23-7 just three weeks ago at Candlestick Park, the 49ers (10-2) now face a Cardinals team that is 5-7, has won four of its past five games and is playing with more life and an outside chance (two games back) of earning an NFC wild-card spot.
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 3½-point favorites, but San Francisco running back Frank Gore says he and his teammates aren’t looking past the Cardinals or taking them lightly. They still have work to do.
“Nah, nah, we’re playing ball,” Gore told reporters this week. “We’ve got four more games left, man, so we’re playing ball. We’re trying to win these last four and hopefully whatever happens with Green Bay, we’ll get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and it would be great for us.”
The 49ers trail 12-0 Green Bay by two games in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and are one game ahead of the New Orleans Saints for the No. 2 seed. The top two seeds earn first-round byes. The 49ers haven’t had a first-round playoff bye since 1997.
The Niners likely will be without standout inside linebacker Patrick Willis Sunday, who suffered a hamstring strain in the game vs. St. Louis.
The Niners defense will face a rejuvenated Arizona offense that has Kevin Kolb back at quarterback, dangerous receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Beanie Wells. Last week in a victory over Dallas, Wells rushed for 67 yards and a TD a week after rushing for a career-high 228 yards vs. the Rams. When the Niners and Cards met in November, however, Wells had a season-low 33 yards on just eight carries. Wells needs 84 yards to become the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007.
Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt says his team is playing with much more confidence now.
“The important thing is we keep our focus like it has been the last five or six games,” Whisenhunt told the Associated Press. “I’ve said we know we are not out of it. But we want to make sure that we focus on trying to get better.”
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald looks at the Niners and sees a team he’s tired of losing to.
“Eventually, you have to stand up and fight,” he told the Arizona Republic. “Five in a row, enough has to be enough at some point. … They’ve beaten us here the last two years and that’s not supposed to happen.”
The challenge for Arizona will be to consistently drive the ball against a solid 49ers defense, even without Willis.
The Niners still haven’t allowed a rushing TD this season and give up a league-low 13.4 points per game while also leading the NFL in takeaways (12 fumble recoveries, 16 interceptions).