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The two NFC West teams heading in opposite directions meet for the second and final time this season Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arizona (5-5) earned its second straight victory last Sunday, winning 35-27 at Cincinnati to remain one game behind division-leading Seattle. The Cardinals haven’t won three in a row since 2002, or been 6-5 since 1998 - the only season the franchise made the playoffs since moving to Arizona in 1988.
“I feel like we should be a little better than we are,” Cardinals first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “But I’m pleased with how we’ve responded these last two weeks and the position that we’re in with six games remaining.”
San Francisco (2-8), meanwhile, likely never thought it would be trying to avoid its first nine-game losing streak in nearly 30 years when it beat Arizona 20-17 to open the season.
“We did not expect to be where we are right now, obviously, at 2-8, at past the mid-point of the season, with the struggles that we’ve had,” said San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, whose team hasn’t scored a touchdown in 11 quarters.
The two teams appear quite different from the ones that faced each other on Sept. 10, when Arnaz Battle scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 22 seconds left.
San Francisco beat St. Louis 17-16 the following week, but has not won since.
The Cardinals haven’t been dominant, but have bounced back from a three-game losing streak to win two in a row and keep pace with the Seahawks in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions.
Arizona will now look to beat the 49ers for the fifth time in six meetings.
Last Sunday against the Bengals, banged-up Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was 16-for-28 for 211 yards with two touchdowns and cornerback Antrel Rolle scored on interception returns of 55 and 54 yards.
The Cardinals have forced 10 of their 19 turnovers in the last two games, which included a 31-21 win home win over Detroit on Nov. 11 in which they held the Lions to minus-18 yards rushing.
Arizona could be in for an another strong defensive performance against San Francisco, which ranks last in the NFL in both total yards (221.1) and points (11.3) per game. The 49ers have not scored a touchdown since Maurice Hicks’ 9-yard run in the first quarter of a 20-16 loss at Atlanta on Nov. 4.
Offensively for the Cardinals, Warner has shined in his last two games despite playing with a torn ligament in his elbow. The 36-year-old quarterback has thrown for 470 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in the two victories.
“We’re trying to get the message to this team that you have to sacrifice to be successful,” said Whisenhunt, in regards to Warner playing hurt.
Warner didn’t play against the 49ers in September, but is 7-0 as a starter with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions versus San Francisco.
Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati. He’s caught 16 passes and three TDs in his last two games, but had just three receptions for 20 yards against San Francisco earlier this season.
The 49ers, who are one defeat away from a fifth straight losing season, have not lost nine in a row since Oct. 8-Dec. 3, 1978.
Though injuries have contributed to Smith’s struggles this season after he threw for 2,890 yards in 2006, Dilfer hasn’t been much better, throwing three touchdowns, seven interceptions and posting a 51.8 passer rating. He was 20-for-42 for 231 yards and two picks in a 13-9 loss to St. Louis last Sunday, but had little support.
“I thought he did a pretty darn good job in the game,” Nolan said. “I was pleased with his performance. But we do not run the ball very well. We also dropped some of his passes.”
Running back Frank Gore, who led the NFC with 1,695 rushing yards last season, has been a big reason for San Francisco’s offensive woes. Bothered by an ankle injury for much of the season, he has just 539 yards and two TDs.
He rushed for a season-low 32 yards on 15 carries last week, but has scored five touchdowns in his last three games versus Arizona.