The peaking-at-the-right-time narrative isn't exclusive to the 49ers in the NFC West.
The Arizona Cardinals - and one of the league's best defenses - can also lay claim to playing their best ball of the season down the stretch. And with that, they are one of the most desperate teams making them one of the most dangerous.
The Cardinals' only shot their first postseason berth since Kurt Warner led them to 10 wins in 2009 comes with a win over San Francisco Sunday paired with a Saints loss at home to Tampa Bay. Dealing Seattle their first home defeat in two seasons last week has suddenly catapulted the NFC West's third-place team into discussion as one of the league's best.
"In my opinion, I think we are the best team in the NFC. I hope we get into the playoffs and we can show it."
Those were the words of defensive lineman Calais Campbell from an appearance on NFL Network this week. Campbell is having an All-Pro caliber season despite not being named a Pro-Bowler, although he is listed as an alternate.
According to our friends at Pro Football Focus, only J.J. Watt is having a better season at the position than Campbell. Only three defensive ends in a 3-4 have more quarterback hurries. But more importantly, Campbell has anchored the best defense against the run in the NFL, allowing opponents just 84.5 rushing yards per game.
"They play based out of a 3-4 structure, but you really want to call it a 5-2 defense with (Matt) Shaugnessy and John Abraham on the edge," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week.
Sunday's tilt will be between two of the conference's hottest teams. The 49ers come in having won their last five while Arizona has taken seven of its last eight, including that signature win over the Seahawks. In that game the Cardinals bottled up Russell Wilson to the tune of 108 yards passing on 11 of 27 completions.
But stopping Wilson starts with slowing down the running game. That's where the Cardinals were most effective in the 17-10 victory. That gameplan will likely carry over against the 49ers Sunday, as they will hope to stop Frank Gore first and force Colin Kaepernick to try and beat their talented secondary.
The Cardinals have allowed a rusher to reach 100 yards just once in 2013 and it came when these two teams played in Week 6 in San Francisco when Gore finished with 101. It was a game the home team won 32-20 thanks to a huge day from Vernon Davis (eight receptions, 180 yards and two scores) and a killer 18-play, 89-yard scoring drive from the 49ers late in the game to help seal the win.
That drive culminated in a six-yard TD run from Kendall Hunter, but it was set up largely by seven runs from Gore, five of which came on the same power running play to the right side of the line.
"Honestly, it was a lot of mental errors on that drive. A lot of guys jumping out of their gaps, not staying in the proper lane and not doing the proper assignment and things like that," Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson said. "That's what that drive came down to. I don't want to say we gave up, but we lost focus and what these guys wanted to do in a certain amount of time."
Arizona's coach Bruce Arians said he believes that drive catalyzed his defense's season-long improvement against the run. The gap integrity Peterson mentioned played a big part in the win over Seattle.
"We wanted to win both lines of scrimmage and felt like our defensive line stopped them pretty good. And then our third-down conversion rate was outstanding on defense, getting off the field," Arians said.
The 49ers were without Michael Crabtree in that first match up. His return four weeks ago against the Rams has paid immediate dividends for the passing game. Kaepernick had a 86.58 passer rating in the 11 games before Crabtree's return from his Achilles tear. In four games since, that number has jumped to 98.26.
"He's slowly getting it back into the groove, he's trying to get back into game shape – trying to get moving like he used to. You can tell he doesn't look as comfortable as he did when he was healthy. Obviously that's going to come with time. He can still catch the ball, he can still run good routes," Peterson said.
If Crabtree is as far from 100 percent as Peterson intimated, the 49ers could be as scary as any NFC team in the postseason. Especially considering the way he could open things up for Davis and Anquan Boldin, who were named Pro Bowler and alternate, respectively this week.
Last season, Crabtree had two of his best games against Peterson and the Cardinals, combining for 13 catches, 244 yards and four touchdowns including a career-high 172 yards in Week 17 when the 49ers won 27-13.
"You know that Colin really likes him," Arians said. "I would like him too if I was the quarterback. He's a heck of a player and it just makes them more dynamic when you think about stopping the run and you got to go cover that guy and Vernon. They've got great weapons."
Having cliched a playoff berth Monday with the dramatic 10-point win over the Atlanta Falcons in the last regular season at Candlestick, San Francisco doesn't have nearly as much to gain or lose than the do-or-die Cardinals Sunday. The team's only chance at improving from the No. 5 seed to the No. 1 seed comes with Seattle losing at home for the second-straight week to the St. Louis Rams paired with a win. They fall to the No. 6 seed with a loss and with a New Orleans win. If they win and New Orleans wins, they remain the fifth seed.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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