GLENDALE, Ariz. — The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals talk about how much is at stake when they meet in their regular-season finale on Sunday.
The correct answer might be hardly anything at all.
The 49ers must win to have a shot at the division title and perhaps the No. 1 seed in the NFC; the Cardinals need a victory just to have any playoff chance. Both teams are at the mercy of others.
San Francisco, which has clinched at least a wild-card spot, wins the NFC West if the 49ers beat Arizona and Seattle loses at home to St. Louis. The 49ers get the NFC’s top seed with a victory over the Cardinals, a Seahawks loss and a loss by Carolina. Arizona’s narrow path to the postseason is a victory over San Francisco and a Tampa Bay upset of the Saints in New Orleans.
A win by the Cardinals (10-5) over the 49ers (11-4) would leave the teams with identical records, but San Francisco has the tie-breaker. That would leave Arizona only the second team to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs since the league went to its division format in 2002.
Neither side plans any scoreboard watching, though.
“I’m sure it’s going to be plastered all over the stadium,” Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said. “It’s probably not going to be easy to avoid, but we have to focus on the team that’s across from us.”
Here are five things to watch when the teams meet Sunday:
In the Cardinals don’t make it to the playoffs, they can look back at near-misses at St. Louis, at Philadelphia, and at San Francisco.
In that Oct. 17 game in Candlestick Park, Arizona trailed 22-20 early in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the San Francisco 31. Palmer threw over the middle to Larry Fitzgerald, but Patrick Willis stripped the ball and the 49ers recovered at their 11-yard line. San Francisco used up 9:32 in an 18-play, 89-yard drive for the clinching score.
Arizona lost the following week at home to Seattle, then went 7-1.
Arizona has gained a lot of belief in itself since the last time it met San Francisco. Winning seven of eight, and snapping Seattle’s 14-game home winning streak, has the Cardinals talking about being the best team in the NFC.
“I sure do,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “Hopefully, we’ll show up Sunday and prove it and get a chance to prove it in the playoffs.”
A win by the Cardinals would mean the team finished the season 3-0 against NFC West competition after starting the season 0-3. Arizona is 7-1 at home.
“They’re another team,” San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis said of these Cardinals compared with the team the 49ers beat earlier. “They’re poised. They’re playing great. They’re playing fast. They’re making plays. These guys, if you look at them on film, they want to win.”
Arizona is ranked first in the NFL against the run, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals always have been successful.
In that clinching drive against Arizona two months ago, Gore was the main force. He finished with 101 yards on 25 carries. No one else has topped 100 yards rushing against the Cardinals this season.
“That was a heck of a drive and, boy, that was a long time ago, though,” San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
Arizona has had trouble stopping the tight end, no one more than Davis in that first meeting. He had eight catches for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns.
“Sometimes it happens like that,” WR Michael Crabtree said. “I wouldn’t really say they have problems with tight ends. It’s just probably the wrong timing, because they are good. Maybe they needed to change some things up“
49ers fullback tag-team
In their first game without do-everything fullback Bruce Miller — lost for the season to a shoulder blade injury suffered at Tampa Bay on Dec. 15 — the 49ers got solid contributions from both players they worked in to fill the void: Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu.
“They both did very well,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Now we can build, add to what each does going forward.”
Tukuafu was re-signed by San Francisco last week. He entered the league as a defensive tackle in 2010, but began getting snaps at fullback in 2012.
“I thought he came in, he had fresh legs, fresh mind,” Harbaugh said. “Was really good with his assignments.”
AP sports writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org