The San Francisco 49ers consistently have talked about the next step during their turnaround season, taking each victory in stride toward a more significant goal.
After wrapping up their first NFC West title in nine years, that mentality remains the same.
San Francisco continues its push for a first-round postseason bye Sunday when it visits the Arizona Cardinals, who are clinging to faint playoff hopes after winning four of five.
The 49ers (10-2) didn’t hold back the celebration after clinching their first division crown and playoff appearance since 2002 with last Sunday’s 26-0 victory over St. Louis, but they were back to business the following day.
“It’s a great thing winning the division,” first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Much like a diploma or a certificate you might receive in school, it has your name on it and what you did. Put that in a little frame, put it up on the wall, feel good about that accomplishment and then move forward to the next goal.”
Frank Gore(notes) surpassed the late Joe Perry as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher after carrying 21 times for 73 yards against the Rams, and he said San Francisco doesn’t plan to sit back despite locking up a playoff berth with four games remaining.
The 49ers are two games behind undefeated Green Bay for the conference’s top seed and one ahead of New Orleans for the NFC’s other first-round bye. San Francisco hasn’t earned one since 1997.
“Nah, nah, we’re playing ball,” Gore said. “We’ve got four more games left, man, so we’re playing ball. We’re trying to win these last four and hopefully whatever happens with Green Bay, we’ll get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and it would be great for us.”
Willis ranks second on the team with 93 tackles and has helped anchor a top-ranked 49ers run defense that is allowing 71.8 yards per game.
“I’m not in Patrick’s body. It’s hard to say with any injury, including a hamstring,” Harbaugh said. “I guess I was more relieved that it wasn’t a knee (injury).”
Wells rushed 20 times for 67 yards and a touchdown in last Sunday’s 19-13 overtime win over Dallas, one week after running for a career-high 228 yards against St. Louis. He had a season-low 33 yards in a 23-7 loss to the 49ers on Nov. 20, but Wells had only eight carries in part because Arizona (5-7) was compelled to throw more after falling behind early.
Kolb returned last Sunday to throw for 247 yards - 203 in the second half - and hit LaRod Stephens-Howling(notes) for a 52-yard touchdown pass in overtime in his first start since getting hurt Oct. 30 in a loss to Baltimore.
Arizona is 2-6 with Kolb and 3-1 without him, though coach Ken Whisenhunt believes he gives the Cardinals the best chance to win.
“It was really nice for him to make those strides as far as the way we’re running our offense,” Whisenhunt said. “That will give us confidence going forward.”
The playoffs may have seemed out of reach following a 1-6 start, but the Cardinals have kept hope alive by going 4-1 since the start of November to move within two games of a wild-card spot.
“The important thing is we keep our focus like it has been the last five or six games,” Whisenhunt said. “I’ve said we know we are not out of it. But we want to make sure that we focus on trying to get better.
“We’re starting to see progress with that. When it’s all done, we’ll look up and see where we are.”
Arizona, though, has lost five in a row to San Francisco.
Alex Smith threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns in last month’s win over Arizona and is coming off another solid performance. He went 17 of 23 for 274 yards with two TDs and no interceptions against St. Louis for a career-best 142.3 passer rating.
Gore, who ran 24 times for 88 yards versus the Cardinals, had five straight 100-yard games before injuring his knee against the New York Giants on Nov. 13 and hasn’t had one since.