The season finale is finally here. After a crazy stretch where the Arizona Cardinals won their first four games then turned around and lost their next nine, the Red Birds play their final game of a disappointing 2012 campaign Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Let's take a look at Sunday's matchup:
San Francisco (10-4-1)
The 49ers can wrap up the NFC West with a victory and should be in an angry mood following their embarrassing 42-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday night on national TV. They want someone to pay for that. That's why it's terrible timing for the Cardinals to face San Francisco right now. The Niners are 16.5-point favorites and will be fired up to dominate a weaker opponent and build momentum as they head toward the NFC playoffs.
All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith (partially torn triceps ) has missed practice this week and will not suit up against Arizona. That's a huge loss for a Niners squad that ranks third in the NFL in points allowed (17.3 PPG) and second in overall defense (296.5 YPG). Smith was one of the main reasons San Francisco held the Cards to just seven yards rushing in their 24-3 triumph in Week Eight.
Alex Smith tossed three touchdown passes in that game but is no longer the Niners quarterback – Colin Kaepernick is and the results have been mixed so far. He owns a 95.9 QB rating, while Smith's rating is a stellar 104.1. , while The University of Nevada product is a very exciting and dangerous scrambler though, a dynamic that Smith simply does not possess. Kaepernick is averaging 6.8 yards per carry, 410 rushing yards in all and has scored five touchdowns on the ground. He will cause Arizona's aggressive defense some problems.
With wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee) now out for the season, Kaepernick will be looking for Michael Crabtree, who scored two touchdowns against All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson in their earlier meeting. Peterson has improved a great deal since the midway point of the season though and has seven interceptions, second in the league. It should be a fun matchup to watch.
The 49ers will try and establish the run with Frank Gore, who is tenth in the league in rushing with 1,146 yards. Gore was held to 55 yards on the ground before getting hurt in their earlier meeting. LaMichael James (3.8 yards per carry) backs up Gore now that Kendall Hunter (ankle injury) is on Injured Reserve.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer gets his first NFL start as the Cardinals try and finish their very disappointing campaign on a winning note. Hoyer will be Arizona's fourth different starting signal-caller this season and he'll be facing a hard nosed defense led by All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith, who leads the NFL with 19.5 sacks, three short of the NFL record held by Michael Strahan.
Smith is likely to be matched up a great deal with left tackle D'Anthony Batiste, who will likely start in place of Nate Potter (ankle injury). Potter replaced Batiste six games ago because Batiste struggled in pass protection so Smith will be licking his chops at this matchup.
This could be the last game as a Cardinal for running back Beanie Wells, who had just one carry last week against the Bears. We all know what happened then – Wells fumbled and the ball was returned for a one-yard score by Zack Bowman. That landed Wells in coach Ken Whisenhunt's doghouse. It's been another disappointing season for Wells, now in his fourth season with the Red Birds.
Hoyer seemed to have some chemistry with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who enjoyed a 111-yard effort against Chicago. He'll try and find him early and often. The Cardinals will also need to get better production from rookie WR Michael Floyd and tight end Rob Housler, who was held without a catch last week.
Arizona's defense and special teams will need to create turnovers in order for the Cardinals to have a chance to win. That won't be easy because the Niners usually do a very good job of protecting the ball. The Red Birds are second in the league with 22 interceptions and rank tenth in sacks (37) so there is always a chance. Not a good one though.
Prediction: The Cardinals are running into a buzz saw. The 49ers will be an angry, determined team following their horrible loss to Seattle last week. They can wrap up the NFC West with a victory and will look to dial up the pressure on Hoyer behind Smith and company right from the start. Only two teams average less points per game than the Cards while the Niners have given up the third fewest points in the league. A very tough way to end a very disappointing 2012 season. San Francisco 27, Cardinals 9.
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