The 49er bar was set pretty low when the 2011 season began. For the past few years, the goal was simply to win the NFC West. To draft and recruit players who could beat Seattle, Arizona, and St. Louis. To somehow get into the playoffs.
With the lockout and the new coaching staff, that playoff goal was abandoned for this year and most just wanted the team to show progress as it muddled its way to a losing record. Some even argued this was a rebuilding year.
But this new coaching staff made a change in the team’s vision. It discarded the “Win the West” mind set and adopted a “Be the Best” attitude. As we finally arrive at the intra-division part of the schedule, the 49ers have conquered the league before even tangling with their division rivals. They can Win the West almost as an afterthought, a by-product of Being the Best.
Sunday’s opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, are probably the NFC West team least likely to achieve any success whatsoever for the next fifty years. It’s a Bidwell enterprise and good players leave faster than they arrive. The 49ers have owned them for two straight seasons. Unless Jim Harbaugh plays this game strictly vanilla — and he might — it should not even be close. It might not even be close with a vanilla game plan. After all, vanilla was the only flavor in the store the past two years, and the Cardinals were steamrolled anyway. And with the epic Harbaugh vs Harbaugh game upcoming next Thursday, I would expect vanilla all the way this Sunday.
This is a game where Aldon Smith should get back on track sack-wise. The Cardinal tackles are two of the worst in the league. The Smith next door to Aldon should get a couple of sacks himself. Arizona QB John Skelton might stagger home from this game feeling like the more famous Skelton’s character, Clem Kadiddlehopper.
It’s difficult to say which NFC West opponent will present the best challenge to the Niners in the coming years. St. Louis has fallen apart this year, victims of a tough early schedule and regressed performances by the defense and offensive line. Their coach, Steve Spagnuolo, appears likely to get canned after the season, and unless the team hires Josh McDaniels as the new HC, the OC will be departing also. This would put Sam Bradford squarely on the same wicked path that torpedoed Alex Smith in San Francisco.
Seattle has the best home field advantage in the West, but only if they are fielding a contender. Pete Carroll has yet to prove he’s anything much more than a smooth talking salesman, but Seattle has a very good defense and that goes a long way in this league. If they get a decent QB, this would be the team most likely to provide the stiffest division competition for the Niners.
Meanwhile, absolutely nobody will be expecting the Cardinals to beat the 49ers on Sunday. In fact, 99.9% of nobodies will not expect this game to even be close. There have been a whole lot of nail biter triumphs this year, but Sunday we should be able to simply and calmly watch the team squash Arizona. We should. Of course, there’s always an Acts of God clause in every human endeavor, so until we get three scores ahead, it will be okay to sweat and chew your fingernails.