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On Sunday, the 49ers will be in the Valley of the Sun to take on the Arizona Cardinals in a battle between two of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Cardinals come into this game having won seven of their last eight, including an upset win over the Seattle Seahawks a week ago. On the other side of the field, the 49ers bring a five game winning streak with them and a playoff berth which they clinched with their defeat of Atlanta on Monday night.
Playoff implications follow both teams into the game. For the Cardinals to make the postseason, they must defeat the 49ers and get help in the form of a Tampa Bay victory against New Orleans to punch their ticket.
The 49ers can find themselves ending the day seeded anywhere from #1 to #6 depending on the days events. A 49ers win gives them no worse than the #5 seed. However, a Seahawks loss to St Louis would then give them the NFC West Division. A Seahawks loss combined with a Carolina loss to Atlanta would give the 49ers home field advantage throughout the playoffs. On the flip side, a 49ers loss combined with a New Orleans win would bump San Francisco down to the #6 seed.
With that as a backdrop here are 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome of the game.
1) Can the 49ers defense force Carson Palmer into interceptions? - This may look like a silly question. After all, Palmer comes into the season finale having thrown 21 interceptions on the season, and just threw 4 last week in Seattle. Over the first 15 weeks, Palmer has only gone 4 games without a pick. However, those 4 have come over the last 6 weeks.
It is very likely that the 49ers will get at least one interception on Sunday which leads to a sub question. Will they be able to make Arizona pay? In the week 6 matchup between these teams the 49ers intercepted Palmer two times in the first quarter, and the returns set the offense up deep in the red zone each time. Despite starting on the Arizona 7 and 11 yard lines off those interceptions, the 49ers were able to only come away with a pair of field goals and found themselves trailing when the quarter ended.
2) Can the 49ers offense create mismatches in the passing game? - Much of the 49ers success through the air against Arizona in their first matchup this season had to do with the offensive coaches being able to create mismatches against the Arizona secondary. Through the use of personnel the 49ers were able to get Vernon Davis matched up 1-on-1 with safety Yeremiah Bell and cornerback Jerraud Powers, and Davis ended up with 6 catches for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns against them.
How did they do it? By utilizing personnel groups with 2 or 3 tight ends the 49ers were able to move Davis out wide while leaving Vance McDonald to be the inline tight end. On the day, Colin Kaepernick was 16-29 for 252 yards and 2 touchdowns, and with 2 or more tight ends on the field he was 8-12 for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns.
They found the mismatch in round 1. The question is, how does Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles respond?
3) Will the 49ers be able to overcome the Cardinals home field advantage? - This may sound strange considering the Cardinals just became the first team in two years to defeat the Seahawks in Seattle, but they are a much better team at home this season.
While they finished with a road record of 4-4 the Cardinals have gone 6-1 at home with their only loss coming to Seattle after a short week, playing on a Thursday night after a physical matchup with San Francisco the week before.
4) Can the 49ers keep their ground game going? - As Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians pointed out during his weekly conference call with Bay Area reporters on Thursday, the Cardinals have the number 1 run defense in the NFL. Over the last three weeks, the Cardinals have given up an average of 89.7 yards per game on the ground.
That is in stark contrast to the output generated by the 49ers run game over the same period of time, as over the last three weeks the 49ers offense has averaged 184 yards per game on the ground.
The key here is in the average yards per carry. A big reason for Arizona giving up less then 90 yards per game is that their opponents haven't run the ball against them very often. Over the last three weeks Cardinal opponents have run the ball only 58 times. On the season, only 2 teams have faced fewer rushing attempts against. Those teams would be Carolina and San Diego. Arizona has given up an average of 4.6 yards per carry the last three weeks.
Now compare those numbers to what the 49ers offense has generated. Over the last three weeks, the 49ers have run the ball 100 times for an average of 5.5 yards per carry.
5) Is a 49ers loss really such a bad thing? - I know this sounds wacko, and as Herm Edwards once opined, "You play to win the game!" To understand this question let's take a look at history. There have been a number of instances in recent years in which wildcard teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl. However, history is not in the 49ers favor should they win on Sunday and enter the playoffs as a wildcard.
The last wildcard team to win its final regular season game on the road and then win all of its playoff games on the road and win the Super Bowl was the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, and they only had to win 2 playoff games to get there.
49ers 23 Cardinals 27
In a tightly contested game similar to the one we saw week 6, the Cardinals pull it out.