When the 49ers and Cardinals met at Candlestick Park in October, the game’s outcome was still in doubt in the third quarter.
Arizona had just scored a touchdown to come within two points at 22-20 with about 4½ minutes remaining in the period.
That’s when the Niners locked up the game. San Francisco used an 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that ate up more than 9½ minutes and gave the 49ers a 29-20 lead en route to a 32-20 victory.
“We grinded some meat,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said after that game. “The game could have gone different ways. Our players really toughed it out when they had to.”
It became one of the 49ers’ most memorable drives of the season, a testament to the offense’s ability to run the ball and control the clock. In a victory over the Falcons this past Monday, the 49ers had another significant late-game drive, going 76 yards for a touchdown on six plays – all runs – in a 34-24 victory.
So as the 49ers prepare to face the Cardinals in Arizona this Sunday, the 49ers no doubt are ready to grind some meat again, now that left guard Mike Iupati is back and the team’s rugged offensive line is again intact.
But much has changed since that first 49ers-Cardinals game in the fall. Arizona, now 10-5, has improved markedly. The Arizona defense that allowed Frank Gore to rush for 101 yards has evolved into the No. 1 run defense in the NFL, using what 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman has called an old-fashioned 5-2 alignment. The Cardinals defense went into Seattle recently and beat the Seahawks in their own home, 17-10, by playing a physical defense that held the ’Hawks to just 103 yards rushing and 89 through the air.
Though the Cardinals have been strong against the run, that’s not going to dissuade San Francisco from going to its strength.
“We’re going to do what we do and we’re going to be physical,” Roman told reporters this week. “We’re going to run the football.”
Sunday’s regular-season finale is big for both teams.
With a win against the Cardinals and a Seahawks loss to the Rams, the 49ers (11-4) would win the NFC West. And if the Falcons beat the Panthers, San Francisco could vault to the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, need to beat the 49ers and have the Saints lose to Tampa Bay in order to earn a playoff spot.
Some oddsmakers have made the 49ers one-point favorites; others have the game rated even.
The Cardinals definitely got the 49ers’ attention with their recent victory in Seattle. That broke the Seahawks’ 14-game home winning streak. Niners safety Donte Whitner said he and his teammates know the Cardinals will be a motivated football team this Sunday. The Niners aren’t looking past Sunday’s game toward the playoffs.
“We have to focus on Arizona,” Whitner told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “They are going to be a really, really hungry football team this weekend. And they’re going to give us their best shot.”