A seven-game winning streak has turned the NFC West into a horse race, with the San Francisco 49ers playing the role of Secretariat.
While the famous racehorse is most celebrated for his 1973 U.S. Triple Crown, the Arizona Cardinals have a different sort of trifecta on the agenda for this Sunday: their first three-game win streak of the season.
Standing in their way are the red-hot 49ers, who are on their longest winning streak since ripping off 11 in a row during the 1997 season and look to take another step towards their first playoff appearance since 2002 this weekend at Candlestick Park.
At 8-1, San Francisco owns a five-game edge over both Arizona and Seattle in the division and hasn't lost since Week 2 in overtime to Dallas. Three points is all that stands between the 49ers being the second undefeated team in the league behind only 9-0 Green Bay.
Quarterback Alex Smith engineered yet another fourth-quarter comeback this past Sunday versus the New York Giants, his fourth of the season. He also joined Hall of Famer Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks in 49ers history to log three fourth-quarter comebacks on the road in a season.
Trailing by a point heading into the fourth quarter, Smith hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 31-yard touchdown early in the frame to put San Francisco ahead for good and Kendall Hunter followed a Carlos Rogers interception with a 17-yard touchdown run.
"That's our closer. That's our big-time player," said Rogers, of Smith. "People talk about him getting old and he's not doing things. Justin is making plays."
Hunter carried the ball six times for 40 yards as Frank Gore was active but logged zero rushing yards on six carries. He was held out of the second half due to ankle and knee injuries.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh became the third rookie head coach to start 8-1 and will try to prevent his team from looking past the Cardinals in anticipation of a Thanksgiving showdown with AFC powerhouse Baltimore.
"We're not going to save anything for the swim back if that's what you're asking," Harbaugh said on Wednesday. "This is a division game, these games are worth two games. It's all important. This is the most important game of the year, because it's the next game."
The Cardinals will hope that is the case as they take aim at their first three-game win streak since Nov. 8-22, 2009. Arizona halted a string of six losses in a row with an overtime home win over St. Louis on Nov. 6, then rallied to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-17, last weekend to end an 11-game road losing streak.
John Skelton made his second start in a row in place of the injured Kevin Kolb (turf toe) and perhaps started a bit of a quarterback controversy with his second straight win. He hit wide receiver Early Doucet for a five-yard touchdown with less than two minutes to play not long after Larry Fitzgerald made an incredible over-the-head grab to set up the score.
"Well, we exorcised a lot of demons today -- winning on the East Coast, stopping them on the last drive defensively, being able to drive down and score offensively -- all the things that we haven't been able to do, seems like we were able to do it today," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "I give a lot of credit to our players and our team for believing in what we were doing."
Fitzgerald ended with two touchdown catches to give him 70 in his career, surpassing Roy Green for the most in team history.
Kolb returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday, but may sit for a third straight game.
Arizona won the opener of a three-game road trip as it visits St. Louis next weekend.
San Francisco has a 23-16 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals and has defeated Arizona four consecutive times after sweeping the 2010 home-and- home set between the divisional foes. The 49ers won both meetings in lopsided fashion, following up a 27-6 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium during Week 12 of last year with a 38-7 home rout in the season finale under then- interim head coach Jim Tomsula, now the team's defensive line coach. San Francisco also took both matchups from the eventual NFC West champion Cardinals in 2009, including a 24-9 victory at Candlestick Park, and have downed Arizona at home in three of the past four years. The Cardinals' only win over that span was a 23-13 decision in 2008 en route to a sweep of that season's series.
The 49ers' last five-game winning streak over Arizona took place between a period between 1993-2002.
Whisenhunt is just 2-6 against the 49ers since taking over as Arizona's head coach prior to the 2007 season, while Harbaugh will be opposing both the Cardinals and Whisenhunt for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Cardinals traded for Kolb (1706 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT) this offseason to be their long-term answer at quarterback, it is Skelton (537 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) that has led the Cardinals to their first winning streak of the season. The second-year pro set career highs last weekend with 21 completions, 40 attempts, 315 yards and three touchdown passes. He was picked off twice, however, with one getting returned for a touchdown. One thing Skelton has done is get the ball into the hands of Fitzgerald (45 receptions, 5 TD), who made seven catches for 146 yards. Last weekend, he became the third-youngest player in league history to reach 70 receiving touchdowns and is just four receiving yards shy of becoming the second- youngest to reach 9,000 in a career. Fitzgerald has 83 catches, 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 career games versus the 49ers. The play of Doucet (36 receptions, 4 TD) has helped open the field for Fitzgerald. Though he had just two catches versus the Eagles, Doucet has already set career highs in receptions, receiving yards (461) and touchdowns. Wideout Andre Roberts (22 receptions) added four catches for 55 yards and tight end Jeff King (18 receptions, 2 TD) also had four for 26 yards. Running back Beanie Wells (588 rushing yards, 7 TD) managed only 62 yards on 23 carries and Arizona ended with 88 yards on the ground, just below its average of 95.0 per game that ranks 26th in the league.
Locking down Fitzgerald will be the chief goal of the 49ers and cornerbacks Rogers (26 tackles, 5 INT) and Tarell Brown (28 tackles). Rogers had a career- best two picks last weekend versus the Giants to go along with six tackles. San Francisco ranks 26th in the league versus the pass (260.3 YPG), but does lead the NFL with 66 passes defensed and 21 forced turnovers. That has helped San Francisco post an NFL-leading plus-13 turnover differential. The Niners lead the league in rushing defense (73.2 YPG) and scoring defense (15.3 PPG), though the Giants totaled 93 rushing yards and 395 net yards of offense. They did not find the end zone on the ground, extending the 49ers' streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown to 10 straight games. They also haven't yielded a 100-yard rusher in 31 consecutive games. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman (92 tackles) and Patrick Willis (78 tackles, 2 sacks) combined for 25 tackles and Willis ended with a sack. Rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith (15 tackles, 6.5 sacks) has 6 1/2 sacks over his previous six games. Smith (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks) ended with six tackles for the 49ers, while safety Donte Whitner (37 tackles, 1 INT) ended with seven.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Despite tying for 25th in the league with 310.4 yards per game, the 49ers are seventh in scoring with 25.9 points per game. The strength is the club's seventh-ranked rush attack, but it got just 77 yards on the ground versus the Giants. Gore (782 rushing yards, 5 TD) is expected to play this weekend and needs 149 rushing yards to pass Joe Perry for the most in franchise history. Perry logged 7,344 over his Hall of Fame career. San Francisco is still averaging 161.5 yards per game on the ground over the last six games and Gore has a touchdown in seven of his last nine games versus the Cardinals. Smith (1709 passing yards, 11 TD, 3 INT) threw for 242 yards and was picked off once against the Giants, completing six passes for 69 yards to tight end Delanie Walker (19 receptions, 3 TD), who matched a career high for receptions in a game. Davis (34 receptions, 4 TD) ended with three receptions and matched Brent Jones for the most touchdowns by a tight end in club history with 33. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards (13 receptions) also had three catches and was second with 47 yards versus the Giants. Michael Crabtree (31 receptions, 1 TD) was held to only one catch but has 11 for 162 yards with two touchdowns in three games versus Arizona.
The Cardinals rank 27th in total defense with 378.6 yards allowed per game, but are coming off a big effort versus the Eagles. Arizona limited Philadelphia's third-ranked offense to 289 yards of total offense and gave up a season-low 15 first downs. The Cards logged two interceptions and went a third straight game without allowing a passing touchdown for the first time since 2005. Defensive end Calais Campbell (46 tackles, 5 sacks) and cornerback A.J. Jefferson (46 tackles) each had their first career interceptions and a sack in this game would give Campbell a sack in nine of his last 10 games versus a division opponent. Linebackers Daryl Washington (55 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and Paris Lenon (53 tackles, 2 sacks) had a sack each and Washington led the way with nine tackles. Cornerback Richard Marshall (41 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) was second with six tackles. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (27 tackles) has four sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles in his career versus the 49ers, while safety Adrian Wilson (35 tackles, 1 INT) has six forced fumbles, three picks and three sacks in this matchup.
KEYS TO THE GAME
San Francisco has had a good run of success as of late versus Arizona and ranks second in the NFL by allowing 14.5 points per game against its own division since 2009. Since 2006, Gore has 3,272 yards from scrimmage versus the NFC West, including 2,359 rushing yards in 26 games.
The 49ers added kicker David Akers this offseason and he has shortened the field for the club. He is a perfect 5-for-5 on attempts from 50 yards and out and has hit 15 straight field goals.
Should Skelton get the call again in this game he will need to take care of the ball. San Francisco thrives on taking the ball away and Skelton's first interception came with the game scoreless and was returned 20 yards for a score. The young signal-caller did keep his composure the rest of the way and will need that this weekend.
A division title seems like a foregone conclusion for the 49ers, but that shouldn't see the club take its foot off the gas. For one, Harbaugh would never let them and San Francisco also holds the second-best record in the conference. With five division games left including this one, a first-round bye is not out of the question for San Francisco. However, with games versus the Ravens and Steelers also mixed in, the Niners can't afford to give away contests like this either. Arizona has won consecutive close games, but a tight contest favors San Francisco.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Cardinals 13