The San Francisco 49ers are trying to improve their playoff positioning after guaranteeing themselves a spot with last week's win.
That result also dimmed the Arizona Cardinals' postseason chances despite an impressive record.
The 49ers could completely dash those hopes with an eighth win in nine tries over Arizona, which can only join them in the playoffs with a victory Sunday and some help elsewhere.
San Francisco (11-4) heads to the desert having already clinched a postseason berth with Monday's 34-24 home victory over Atlanta. A win Sunday combined with a Seattle loss to St. Louis would secure a third straight NFC West title. Those results along with a Carolina loss at Atlanta would give the Niners home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
They've wrapped up a third straight trip to the postseason by winning five straight, a strong finish to a sometimes turbulent season which included two sets of back-to-back losses.
"Everybody expected us to just coast right through the season and be easy. But as you know we went through a little bit of adversity, and people were like, 'Well, maybe they're not the team that we thought they were,'" said Patrick Willis, closing in on 100 total tackles for the sixth time in seven seasons. "But we just stayed together and we have another chance now to go make something happen."
It appeared Arizona (10-5) might also get that chance when the 49ers were clinging to a late three-point lead Monday with Atlanta deep in their territory. A loss by San Francisco would have given the Cardinals control of their playoff fate, but NaVorro Bowman's 89-yard interception return for a touchdown with 1:11 to go ended those hopes.
Arizona has won seven of eight, playing much better after a 3-4 start which included a 32-20 loss in San Francisco on Oct. 13. After a surprising 17-10 win at Seattle last Sunday - the Seahawks' first home loss in nearly two years - the Cardinals have their second 10-win season since moving to Arizona in 1988. They can tie a franchise record with their 11th victory, last achieved in 1975.
"(An 11-5 record) will be nice," said Bruce Arians, among the Coach of the Year favorites after winning the honor last season with Indianapolis. "It's a nice foundation, but I'm really not about that stuff. We play to get in the playoffs and win the championship."
However, the Cardinals are in danger of becoming the second 11-win team to miss the postseason since the NFL switched to its current playoff format in 2002. New England was left out in 2008 despite finishing 11-5.
To reach the playoffs, Arizona not only needs a win of its own, but also a home loss by New Orleans against Tampa Bay, which lost 41-0 at the Superdome last season. The Saints are 7-0 at home.
"It's not in our control," Arians said. "I want to be 11-5 and let the chips fall. There is some joy in that. If we're watching the playoffs, we're watching a bunch of teams we beat. That's a little bit sour."
With Carson Palmer matching a career worst with four interceptions, the Cardinals relied on their defense and allowed a season-low 192 yards to Seattle. Palmer came through for the decisive score, finding Michael Floyd on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 2:13 remaining.
The victory stopped Seattle from clinching home-field advantage in the playoffs for at least another week.
"To have a road win like that, it's a playoff atmosphere, because they were playing for everything," Arians said. "I would feel very confident going anywhere in this National Football League playing anybody."
Palmer, 133 yards shy of becoming the first player in league history to throw for 4,000 with three different clubs, will be up against another opportunistic defense that could make him pay for more shoddy decision-making. San Francisco has recorded an interception in seven straight games with two against the Falcons.
Palmer will also likely face some serious pressure from the 49ers, who have recorded 16 sacks during their five-game winning streak, though they managed only one against Atlanta. Ahmad Brooks has seven sacks in eight career games versus Arizona.
The Cardinals will try to limit Vernon Davis, who caught eight passes for a career-high 180 yards and two scores in the teams' first meeting. The tight end didn't have a reception last week after catching a touchdown pass in five consecutive games.
Sunday marks Anquan Boldin's first game at Arizona after he recorded 7,520 yards and 44 TDs through his first seven NFL seasons as a Cardinal.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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