Not only did the San Francisco 49ers fail to clinch the NFC West title in their last game, they lost control of their ability to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs.
That could prove costly down the road given the number of key injuries the team has sustained.
The 49ers will try to bounce back from their worst loss under Jim Harbaugh in their second chance to clinch the division Sunday at home against an Arizona Cardinals team plagued by season-long quarterback problems.
San Francisco (10-4-1) fell 42-13 at Seattle last Sunday. The 49ers’ lead over the Seahawks in the West was cut to one-half game, meaning that a victory over Arizona (5-10) or a Seattle loss to St. Louis is still needed for playoff-bound San Francisco to earn a second straight West crown.
“No excuses or justifications,” Harbaugh said. “Our team needs to bounce back.”
Perhaps more importantly, San Francisco fell one-half game behind NFC North champion Green Bay in the race for the No. 2 seed and a bye. The 49ers now must win and hope the Packers lose in Minnesota in order to gain that slot.
The week off could have been critical because numerous 49ers are battling injuries.
Defensive lineman Justin Smith’s streak of 185 straight starts ended when he sat out against the Seahawks with an elbow injury. Harbaugh has not fully disclosed his status.
Tight end Vernon Davis practiced for the second straight day Friday but has yet to clear the league’s NFL concussion protocol after getting hit hard by Seattle safety Kam Chancellor Wide receiver Mario Manningham previously bothered by a shoulder injury, limped out of the locker room Monday on crutches and is out for the season with torn knee ligaments.
Harbaugh is counting on the depth of his team to overcome these injuries.
“I feel our team’s leadership, I feel the intellect of the staff, I think the talent of the players, the work ethic of the players will pave the way,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers are heavily favored to hand the Cardinals a seventh straight road loss. Arizona’s 1-10 slide since a 4-0 start has raised questions about the status of sixth-year coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Whisenhunt will give Brian Hoyer his first NFL start Sunday, making him the fourth quarterback to start for Arizona this season. Kevin Kolb remains out with a rib injury, and Ryan Lindley and John Skelton have been ineffective.
Hoyer, acquired off waivers Dec. 10, went 11 of 19 for 105 yards and an interception after replacing Lindley during last week’s 28-13 loss to Chicago, the Cardinals’ sixth straight game without a touchdown pass.
“There’s no question that we’ve got to have more consistency from the quarterback position, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Whisenhunt said Monday. “You look at last night’s (Seattle-San Francisco) game and what a difference Russell Wilson has made in Seattle with all the plays that he makes. That’s what you have to have.”
Hoyer was cut by New England before this season and signed by Pittsburgh on Nov. 20. He never played for the Steelers, who cut him two days before the Cardinals picked him up.
“Anytime you’re out there on the field, it’s your resume,” Hoyer said. “You have to go out there and take advantage of every opportunity you’re given. In New England I didn’t get many opportunities to get on the field.”
The expectations don’t seem to be too high at that position for Whisenhunt, whose team has the league’s fifth-highest turnover total with 32. Opponents have scored 49 points directly off Cardinals’ offensive turnovers to tie them with Philadelphia for the highest total in that category.
The Cardinals allowed two such scores last week.
“I think the thing that’s been the hardest is the turnovers, especially the turnovers for points,” Whisenhunt said. “You can’t overcome those things, not every week.”
The Cardinals have been outscored 85-23 in losing three straight at San Francisco, and fell 24-3 at home to the 49ers on Oct. 29 when Skelton was the starter. Alex Smith was the Niners’ starter then and went 18 of 19 for 232 yards, three scores and a near-perfect passer rating of 157.1.
Colin Kaepernick has taken over since, and he turned in his worst effort as a starter last week by completing 19 of 36 passes for 244 yards, one TD and one interception.
Niners linebacker Aldon Smith has not recorded a sack in his last two games. He has an NFC-best 19.5 - three shy of the NFL record set by the Giants’ Michael Strahan in 2002.