The Arizona Cardinals might be the most surprising team of 2013. Through 15 games, they have 10 wins and a chance to finish with one of the best records in the NFC. They are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having lost once since Week Seven.
Despite Arizona’s success, they remain on the outside of the playoff picture. They enter Week 17 still in the race for the final wild card spot, but they don’t control their own destiny. The Cardinals need a loss from the New Orleans Saints, in addition to beating the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
San Francisco already clinched a playoff spot, but they have a lot to play for. At 11-4, the 49ers can get the No.1 seed in the conference. A win for San Francisco, coupled with losses by the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, would give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The NFC West matchup is expected to be one of the more highly contested games on the final day of the regular season. The 49ers opened the week as favorites, but the betting odds now have game set as a pick’em. With the teams only separated by one win, a few factors could swing the outcome either way.
Arizona Run Defense
The Cardinals have won 10 games by sporting the best run defense in the NFL. They allow a league-best 84.5 yards per game on the ground, and haven’t let a running back go for over 100 yards since Week Six.
If anyone can have success against Arizona, though, it might be Frank Gore. He’s the only rusher to reach the century mark when facing the Cardinals in 2013. His 101 yards helped lead the 49ers to a 32-20 victory.
Gore’s individual success is key to San Francisco’s team success. He averages 80.5 yards per games in wins and just 57 in losses. In Gore’s top five rushing performances, the 49ers are undefeated, with an average margin of victory of 13.4 points.
Colin Kaepernick’s Passing
San Francisco’s quarterback is one of the most mobile in the league. Only three signal callers have registered more than his 500 rushing yards. However, the 49ers don’t need him to run the ball well, in order to pick up a victory.
The 49ers are at their best when Kaepernick isn’t trying to rush for yardage. He actually averages more yards on the ground in San Francisco losses than he does during the team’s wins. His passing numbers, though are the exact opposite.
When Kaepernick throws the ball effectively, the 49ers win. In 11 victories, he’s thrown for 217.5 yards per games, 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. In four losses, he has two scores, six interceptions and a measly 123.8 yards per game. He hasn’t surpassed a 73.0 passer rating in his team’s defeats.
Kaepernick’s biggest struggles have come against teams with a strong pass rush. His five worst quarterback ratings have come against teams that rank in the top 12 in sacks. The Cardinals enter Week 17 at No.5 with 45 total sacks, but their sack leader could miss the contest. John Abraham and his 11.5 sacks could be forced to sit on the bench because of a groin injury. He’s listed as a game-time decision.
Michael Crabtree has been back for a month after recovering from surgery to repair his torn Achilles. His return has paid immediate dividends, helping the team win each of his four games. He had his best performance on Monday night, catching five passes for 102 yards in a victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Cardinals’ cornerback Patrick Peterson, though, believes the wide receiver still isn’t at 100 percent.
“He’s slowly getting back into the groove, like he’s trying to get back in game shape, get back moving the way he used to,” Peterson said Thursday. “You can tell he doesn’t look as comfortable as he did when he was healthy.”