With an eye on a possible first-round bye, the Niners travel to University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. It is there that they will take on an Arizona Cardinals club that will be looking to avenge a Week 11 setback to the NFC West champions that represents its lone slip-up over the past five games.
The 49ers had their first playoff bid in nine years in mind when they lured Harbaugh away from a successful four-year stint as head coach of Stanford in the college ranks this past offseason, and completed their ascension to the top of the NFC West with last weekend's 26-0 thumping of the St. Louis Rams. The shutout secured San Francisco's first trip back to the postseason since its aforementioned 2002 division title with four games still to play.
"It's the first step," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "We talked about it all week, win the division."
The Niners rebounded from a Thanksgiving Day loss to Baltimore that snapped an eight-game win streak and pushed their season record to 10-2. That is the second-best mark in the NFC, two games back of the 12-0 Green Bay Packers and just ahead of the New Orleans Saints and their 9-3 record.
With the win over the Rams, Harbaugh joined George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997) as the only rookie head coaches in team history to win the NFC West, but the sideline general isn't ready to take his foot off the gas.
"Winning the division [is] much like a diploma or certificate that you might receive in school that has your name on it, and what you did," said Harbaugh. "And [you] put that in a little frame, put it up on the wall and feel good about that accomplishment. Then move forward to the next goal."
Partially overshadowed in last weekend's win was running back Frank Gore becoming the 49ers' all-time leading rusher. He needed just 22 yards to move ahead of Hall of Famer Joe Perry's 7,344 yards and did so with a two-yard run in the second quarter. Gore ended the game with 73 yards on 21 carries.
Gore was more excited after the game to be going to the playoffs for the first time in his seven-year career, but did earn praise from his head coach.
"It's a powerful thing to set that kind of a record," Harbaugh said.
San Francisco will be looking to win at least five road games in a season for the first time since 2002, but may have to do so without inside linebacker Patrick Willis after he suffered a hamstring injury versus the Rams.
That could be a big break for the Cardinals, who have won four of their last five games as they try to get to the .500 mark. Last Sunday's 19-13 overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys upped their record to 5-7.
Playing for the first time in five games because of turf toe, Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb hit running back LaRod Stephens-Howling on a perfectly- timed screen pass that morphed into a 52-yard touchdown and the winning points. That came after Dallas kicker Dan Bailey appeared to hit a go-ahead field goal with seven seconds left in the fourth quarter, only to find out that his team had called a timeout.
Bailey's second attempt was short and led to overtime.
"Our defense really kept us in the game and then our offense woke up in the second half," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose club had lost six straight before its current 4-1 run.
The lone loss in that span came on Nov. 20 in San Francisco, a 23-7 victory by the Niners in which Smith threw a pair of touchdown passes and the 49ers' defense forced five turnovers. That included three interceptions of John Skelton, who was starting in place of the injured Kolb.
Whisenhunt comes into this meeting one win shy of matching Don Coryell's club record of 42 victories as a head coach, including the postseason. Whisenhunt can also become the first Arizona head coach in team annals to post five straight seasons with at least a .500 record at home in five straight seasons. Arizona is currently 3-2 as the host.
San Francisco has a 24-16 lead in its overall series with the Cardinals and has now defeated Arizona five consecutive times following last month's previously-noted win at Candlestick Park. The 49ers also registered their third season sweep of Arizona in a four-year span by claiming both 2010 matchups between the teams, following up a 27-6 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium 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 recorded victories in Arizona in both 2007 (37-31, OT) and 2009 (20-16) en route to home-and-home sweeps in each of those years. The Cardinals' last win over the Niners took place at home in 2008, a 29-24 decision.
The 49ers' current streak against Arizona is its longest in the set since a period of five wins in a row between 1993-2002. San Francisco has never downed the Cardinals six straight times in its history.
Whisenhunt is just 2-7 against the 49ers since taking over as the Cardinals' head coach prior to the 2007 season, while Harbaugh won his only lifetime meeting with both Arizona and Whisenhunt as a head man earlier this season.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
If there was one concern for the Niners and their 24th-ranked offense last week, it was the fact that they failed to score a touchdown in four trips inside the Rams' red zone. Still, kicker David Akers hit four field goals in response, giving him a single-season franchise record of 32 made this season, and Smith (2390 passing yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) hit on touchdown passes of 52 and 56 yards. He threw for 274 yards in another solid performance and did not turn the ball over despite getting sacked four times. His first long touchdown pass went to Michael Crabtree (48 receptions, 2 TD) early in the third quarter, while fellow wideout Kyle Williams (11 receptions, 3 TD) hauled in the 56-yard connection in the fourth to cap the scoring. Crabtree and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (16 receptions) both had four catches, while tight end Vernon Davis (48 receptions, 5 TD) had a game-high five. Crabtree could be in for another big game after logging seven catches for a season-high 120 yards earlier this year versus the Cards, while Gore (982 rushing yards, 5 TD) has run for 867 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games against Arizona. The Niners rank first in the NFL with just 10 turnovers.
Arizona ranks 25th in the league in total defense (370.5 ypg) and gave up 336 total yards to Dallas, but was also able to dial up the pressure by getting sacks from five different players. That marked the Cardinals highest single- game total since 2004. Two of the sacks came from Arizona's front three, including one each by ends Calais Campbell (58 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) and Darnell Dockett (34 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Campbell is just one sack shy of matching his career high of seven. Linebackers Paris Lenon (73 tackles, 3 sacks), Clark Haggans (35 tackles, 2 sacks) and O'Brien Schofield (28 tackles, 2.5 sacks) also got to the quarterback last week, while linebacker Daryl Washington (74 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) led with way with nine tackles. Arizona did not force a turnover, but did hold Dallas to 75 yards rushing. The Cards haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in five straight games. Cornerback Patrick Peterson (52 tackles, 2 INT) is a big threat in the return game, but his speed will also be used to keep pace with Crabtree and Williams, while safety Adrian Wilson (44 tackles, 1 INT) looks to continue his solid play versus the Niners. He has six forced fumbles, three picks and three sacks against them in his career.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Kolb (1953 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) certainly showed some rust in his return to action, as the Cardinals managed only 49 yards by halftime against Dallas and had a net of minus-nine in the second quarter. The signal-caller got going in the second half and finished with 247 yards on 16-of-25 passing, though he was sacked five times as well. He was helped by 103 yards on the ground, with running back Beanie Wells (916 rushing yards, 9 TD) logging a game-high 67 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown. Kolb's return meant big things for wide receiver Andre Roberts (33 receptions), who led the team with six catches and 111 yards. A nagging hamstring injury to veteran Todd Heap (13 receptions) has kept him on the sidelines for most of the season and has let tight end duties largely to Jeff King (20 receptions, 2 TD) and rookie Rob Housler (9 receptions). Wideout Larry Fitzgerald (55 receptions, 6 TD) made four catches for 55 yards versus Dallas and is 57 yards shy of reaching 1,000 on the season. He is aiming to become the first player in Cardinals history to record six 1,000-yard campaigns and has posted 86 receptions, 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 career games versus the Niners.
San Francisco posted its first shutout since Oct. 4, 2009 last week despite losing Willis (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) early in the game. The perennial Pro Bowler is one of the best at his position, but there is no need for the Niners to rush him back, especially given how NaVorro Bowman (110 tackles) has played in the middle alongside of him. Larry Grant will likely start in Willis' place if he can't go. Despite ranking 16th against the pass (231.6 ypg), the Niners are giving up a league-low 13.4 points per game and rank fourth in total defense. The secondary is a bit banged up, however, with corners Carlos Rogers (35 tackles, 5 INT) and Tarell Brown (34 tackles) nursing knee and ankle ailments, respectively. San Francisco's strength is its run defense, and it limited the Rams to 31 yards on 23 carries. The Niners gave up just 157 yards of offense in all to St. Louis and logged four sacks. Linebacker Aldon Smith (23 tackles, 9.5 sacks) had two of those and ranks third in club history for the most sacks by a rookie, while Grant and defensive lineman Ray McDonald (27 tackles, 4 sacks) also posted sacks. Safety Dashon Goldson (51 tackles, 4 INT) had an interception to match his career high for a season, while fellow safety Donte Whitner (49 tackles, 2 INT) had a fumble recovery and a pick in the team's last meeting with Arizona.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Cardinals may have to stretch the field to beat the 49ers and are tied with the Packers for the most touchdowns of 50-plus yards with eight. However, the Niners rank first in the NFL with only 17 plays allowed of 20 yards or more over their last eight games.
San Francisco has not allowed a rushing touchdown in 13 straight games or a 100-yard rusher in its last 34. Wells will try to end those streaks in this one and is 84 yards shy of becoming Arizona's first 1,000-yard runner since Edgerrin James in 2007. He is also one score shy of becoming just the second Cardinal since 1973 to run for 10 touchdowns in a season.
Both the 49ers and Cardinals have logged 29 sacks this season, tied for 13th in the league, and neither Kolb nor Alex Smith are a threat to break off big runs. Both clubs get a lot of pressure from the linebacker spots, but San Francisco may have the edge in getting pressure with its front three.
One thing working in the Cardinals' favor is a possible letdown by the Niners off a division-clinching victory. While it is certainly too early to begin resting starters, players such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick, running back Kendall Hunter and a handful of other backups could start to see increased playing time. San Francisco, though, can't afford to look past Arizona with a big home game versus Pittsburgh on the horizon if it wants to secure a one of the top two seeds. Dockett, meanwhile, put it best when he said the Cardinals are playing with nothing to lose, but that mentality probably won't be enough to pull off this upset.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Cardinals 13