SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — For the past four seasons, the Cardinals watched the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks rule the NFC West, and it sometimes left Arizona with little to play for late in the year.
Oh, how that’s changed in 2015, with the Cardinals among the NFL elite.
Arizona (8-2) brings a four-game winning streak into Sunday’s road game against San Francisco. The Cardinals’ 47-7 victory in Week 3 over the Niners helped them get rolling.
“This has been a bad-boy division with the Seahawks and 49ers,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “So, we just try to go in and play our style of football … and hopefully have some success, have the type of success those teams have had over the last couple years.”
Yet Arizona hasn’t won on San Francisco’s home field since 2008, losing six straight and seven of eight. The 49ers (3-7) have made a quarterback change since the teams last played and now feature Blaine Gabbert under center instead of Colin Kaepernick, who threw four interceptions in the last meeting.
Coach Bruce Arians’ message has been a reminder about the team’s struggles here in the past, and not to take anything for granted at this stage with the season’s stretch run ahead.
“We haven’t won in their stadium since 2008 and that’s been talked about a lot,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “They’ve been one of the two best teams in this division for a long time. They’ve been to the Super Bowl recently. It’s an NFC West game. They’re the 49ers: the history, the tradition. This is a big game for us.”
The Cardinals sure look like one of the favorites to return to Levi’s Stadium for the Super Bowl in two months. Not that it has even come up.
“No, no, we’ll wait for that some other time,” Arians said. “We haven’t won there in so long, so I don’t think we can dream about that.”
Here are some things to watch for Sunday:
DEFENDING GABBERT: Mathieu made it clear there’s a big difference between Kaepernick and Gabbert, who led a victory against Atlanta on Nov. 8 in his first start in more than two years, then lost at Seattle.
“It seems like he takes care of the football way better. If he gets in a situation where he feels pressure, he’s not just going to give the defense an opportunity to make a play,” Mathieu said.
IUPATI’S RETURN: Mike Iupati didn’t play in Week 3 against his former 49ers, who selected him 17th overall in the first round of the 2010 draft. He was slowed by a knee injury early, but is expected to be a go this weekend after sustaining a stinger in a win against the Bengals one week after a neck injury at Seattle required him to leave on a stretcher and be hospitalized.
“Mike has bounced back,” Arians said. “I know he wanted to (face San Francisco) the last time and we kind of said, ‘Hey, you’re not ready yet,’ so yeah, I think he’ll have some extra energy and be ready to go for his old buddies.”
OUTSPOKEN DBS: Players in the Cardinals’ secondary were outspoken about their ability to read Kaepernick with a “simplified” passing game.
Even this week Mathieu said it: “We just knew Kaepernick’s tendencies.”
Arians appreciates that swagger, even if it might be a bit brash at times.
“Yeah, they probably get it from me. So I don’t have a problem with it. I think sometimes they need to shut up and just play,” he said.
MISCUES ON D: San Francisco’s defense missed tackles and got burned by backup rookie running back Thomas Rawls in last week’s loss at Seattle, and the 49ers will have to find a way to make plays this week to avoid what happened in Arizona.
Palmer threw for 311 yards and two TDs, Chris Johnson ran for 110 yards and two scores, while Larry Fitzgerald had nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdown receptions.
“We all need to be a little bit more accountable in how we play the game,” safety Eric Reid said.
AGELESS FITZ: Fitzgerald keeps climbing career passing lists and, given his history against the 49ers, he could add to those impressive numbers. He needs 74 yards for his seventh career 1,000-yard season in receiving yards, but first since 2011.
In 23 career games against San Francisco, Fitzgerald has 126 catches for 1,788 yards and 14 touchdowns. The yards are his most against any opponent.
He also needs one catch to take sole possession of 12th on the NFL career list, and 13 yards to pass Hall of Famer Steve Largent for 16th in yards receiving. At 32 years and 85 days last Sunday night, Fitzgerald became the third-youngest player in NFL history to reach 13,000 yards receiving. Only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice reached the milestone at a younger age.