Just two months ago, the 49ers grabbed control of the NFC West from the Arizona Cardinals behind Alex Smith’s near perfect performance on a Monday night in the desert.
Oh, how much has changed since.
The slow and steady Smith has been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, a high-risk, high-reward quarterback whom coach Jim Harbaugh is counting on to lead the suddenly fragile 49ers (10-4-1) deep into the playoffs. The Cardinals (5-10) are on their fourth starting quarterback in Brian Hoyer and have lost 10 of 11 games to put coach Ken Whisenhunt’s job in jeopardy.
One team is headed to the postseason, the other for a head start on the NFL draft. The only question left is where each will be seeded for their final destinations.
San Francisco can clinch its second straight division title and keep its shot at a first-round bye alive in today’s regular-season finale against Arizona at Candlestick Park. The once promising Cardinals are ?60 minutes away from beginning another offseason of upheaval.
“Sometimes in a game like this, anything goes,” Harbaugh said. “Their mindset will be to win the game. So you have to be ready. You have to be alert for just about ?anything.”
At the very least, last week should’ve reminded the 49ers of that much.
San Francisco’s 42-13 shellacking in Seattle handed Harbaugh the worst loss of his NFL coaching career. It showed how flimsy the 49ers and their second-ranked defense can be without Justin Smith, the versatile lineman whose streak of 185 games ended with what the team has called an elbow injury. Smith is not expected to play against Arizona and his status for the playoffs remains murky.
Harbaugh has shown the ability to rebound his team quickly. The 49ers are 7-0 after a loss or tie in his tenure, and he’ll need to rally his players again at the most important time.
The 49ers can still secure the ?No. 2 playoff seed — and the first-round bye that comes with it — with a win coupled with a Green Bay loss at Minnesota. If they lose and Seattle (10-5) wins at home against St. Louis, the Seahawks will steal the NFC West and send San Francisco on the road for the first round.
“It’s for the NFC West,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “That was our goal coming into this season — to win the NFC West. We get a chance to do that this Sunday. That’s what we want. We’re upset about last week. We’ve got to win.”
Last week was a 42-13 loss at Seattle. That alone should provide an attitude strong enough to keep San Francisco sharp.
Hoyer is making his first NFL start, less than three weeks after the Cardinals claimed him off waivers from Pittsburgh. The former Michigan quarterback spent three seasons as a backup to Tom Brady in New England, was out of a job for most of the year and then relieved Ryan Lindley in Arizona’s 28-13 loss to Chicago last week.