Call it the best football team San Francisco has produced in a very long while, but the road into and through the postseason is one that is not over for the current 10-2 49ers.
In clinching the franchise’s first NFC West Division title since 2002 last week, a dangerous pattern of failing to convert red-zone appearances into touchdowns and merely settling for field goals has ensued.
“We’ve left a lot of points on the field in the red zone, especially these last handful of weeks,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “So no question [there is] room for improvement … need to improve, and we will.”
Regardless of, again, not being able to break past the goal line during the first half of last week’s 26-0 win over St. Louis, Smith’s two-touchdown performance is a start.
Smith threw for 274 yards on 17 completions and punctuated the day with touchdown strikes to Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams.
“Just look at Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, all three of them did a fantastic job in this last game,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They’re all contributing in a big way.”
Despite not being able to break into the end zone until the third quarter when they first met the Cardinals three weeks ago, the 49ers also dominated Arizona en route to a 23-7 win.
Since then, however, the Cardinals have won two straight, the latest being last week’s overtime comeback triumph over the now 7-5 Cowboys, and have gone 4-1 in their past five games. In that span, Arizona’s only loss, of course, has been to San Francisco.
Last week’s win over Dallas also marked the return of Arizona’s starting quarterback, Kevin Kolb, who had been sidelined for four weeks after sustaining a toe injury against Baltimore.
But regardless of who the redbirds have at quarterback, Harbaugh doesn’t expect to see a different team today than the one he coached against in November.
“I think their general identity is the same,” Harbaugh said, while acknowledging that he is in new head-coaching territory in respects to facing the same opponent in a short time span.
“Pretty much treating it like we would a normal opponent that we hadn’t played,” he said. “Doing all of our necessary preparations that way. It’s my first experience going through this.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into today’s rematch in Glendale, Ariz., is whether 49ers defensive standout Patrick Willis will suit up for action.
The linebacker, who has led his defense to be one of the most violently frugal in the league today, left last Sunday’s game against the Rams with a hamstring injury in the first half.
After undergoing an MRI, Willis did not practice, leaving his game status undetermined.
“But that doesn’t mean he won’t play Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “Is he a quick healer? Absolutely. He’s a stud.”
More on the line for 49ers
The first step sometimes is the biggest for NFL teams: making the playoffs.
With that accomplished, the Green Bay Packers and 49ers have much loftier goals.
Green Bay clinched the NFC North and San Francisco grabbed the NFC West last week with wins. For the Packers, there’s been nothing but victories, 12 of them, as they host the Raiders today. The defending Super Bowl champions are concentrating on ensuring all their playoff games are held at Lambeau Field. San Francisco’s record is 10-2 and the 49ers don’t have the most challenging remaining schedule. They are at Arizona today — the Niners are 4-1 on the road — and also go to Seattle and St. Louis. The biggest test is a home game with the Steelers.
The Niners want, at worst, to finish second overall in the NFC and get a first-round playoff bye and a guaranteed home game. They also know NFC South leader New Orleans is just one game behind in the overall standings.
“I think we’re still just kind of scratching at it, what we can become,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “And we’re doing some good things in the meantime, but still I think, still kind of forming and becoming what our potential is.
That’s encouraging as well that we just need to continue to keep getting better these last few weeks, each and every week taking a step.”
49ers (10-2) vs. Cardinals (5-7)
WHEN: Today, 1:05 p.m.
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)
RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)