The 49ers meet the Cardinals in Glendale on Sunday afternoon in a matchup with enormous playoff implications for both teams. Here are three things to watch as the game gets underway:
1. The scoreboard.
While players and coaches will be focused on the game on the field, fans of both teams at University of Phoenix Stadium will be glued to their smartphones to track a pair of other games that kick off at the same time.
In order to make the playoffs, the Cardinals must avenge their 32-20 Week 6 loss at San Francisco and hope that 4-11 Tampa Bay pulls an upset at New Orleans, where the Saints are 7-0 this season. Otherwise, the Cards could become just the second NFL team since 2002 (when the current eight-division format was adopted) to go 11-5 and miss the playoffs. (The other team: the New England Patriots in 2008, which was the same season that the 9-7 Cardinals won the NFC West and advanced to the Super Bowl.)
Meanwhile, visiting 49ers fans will keep a close eye on the Seattle Seahawks' home game against St. Louis. If the Rams win, San Francisco would clinch the NFC West – and more importantly, a first-round bye in the playoffs – with a win at Arizona, thanks in part to the Cardinals' 17-10 win at Seattle last week.
2. Which Carson Palmer will show up?
In Weeks 12-15, Palmer threw nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Then, last week happened.
The Cards managed to hand Seattle its first home loss in two years despite four interceptions by Palmer – including a horrible decision to fling a pass into the end zone rather than take a sack in the final minute of the third quarter – against the NFL's leader in passing yards allowed.
The 49ers aren't as formidable against the pass, but Palmer did throw two interceptions in the Cardinals' first meeting with San Francisco. If Palmer can make wiser, veteran decisions to throw the ball away (or even take a sack) rather than make ill-advised throws, it will go a long way toward helping Arizona's playoff chances.
3. Can either team establish a ground game?
Simply stated, it's a pain in the neck to try to run against either of these teams. The Cardinals lead the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (84.5), while the 49ers are fifth in that category (96.8).
San Francisco running back Frank Gore did manage 101 yards on 25 carries against Arizona in Week 6 – the only 100-yard rusher the Cardinals have allowed all season – while Arizona RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington combined for 96 yards on 17 rushes (5.6 yards per carry) in that game.
Chances are, however, that yards on the ground will be harder to come by this time, in a game that means so much to both teams.
The 49ers have the NFL's longest current winning streak (five games), and they boast a 5-2 road record away from Candlestick Park. But the Cardinals have won seven of their last eight games, are 6-1 at home, and are coming off their most impressive road win in recent memory.
There's a good chance that Palmer will have more time to throw and won't repeat the mistakes he made at Seattle. And if the 49ers can't establish the run against the NFL's No. 1 rush D, quarterback Colin Kaepernick – who is just 30th among NFL QBs in completion percentage (58.1%) – could have a hard time finding his receivers against an Arizona secondary that limited MVP candidate Russell Wilson to just 108 yards on 11 completions last weekend.
Bottom line: The 49ers have already clinched a playoff spot, while the Cardinals are still on the outside looking in. Both teams have much to play for, but the home team will play with more desperation.
Arizona 24, San Francisco 14