NFL Preview - San Francisco (1-1) at Arizona (2-0) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite a 10-win season, the Arizona Cardinals did not make the playoffs in 2013, in part because of a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in their regular season finale.
The Cardinals hope for a better result this Sunday against the rival Niners as the two clubs open up division play at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Because of solid campaigns by San Francisco and the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, Arizona was unable to grab a wild card spot last year despite a five-win turnaround under head coach Bruce Arians.
The success has continued this year, with the Cardinals off to a 2-0 start to give them a victory in nine of their past 11 games dating back to last season.
It has been easy though, with Arizona having to come back twice in the fourth quarter. The Cards rallied to top San Diego 18-17 in Week 1 at home, then overcame a four-point deficit in the final quarter this past Sunday in New York to top the Giants 25-14.
Ted Ginn Jr. had the big play in the comeback, returning a punt 71 yards for a score. Arizona also forced three turnovers along with Ginn's return in the fourth quarter.
"I commend my other 10 guys, first off," Ginn said of the return. "Without them, there's no me. But you know, it was just that point of time where we needed a play, and I just went out and I just tried to make the best play that I can, and it turned out to be a touchdown."
Drew Stanton, making his first appearance since 2010, managed the Cardinals offense on 14-of-29 passing for 167 yards. He played in place of Carson Palmer, who was listed as questionable throughout the week and missed the contest due to a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder.
Andre Ellington rushed for 91 yards and Jonathan Dwyer ran for a touchdown in the win, which made the Cardinals the first time since the Green Bay Packers in 1982 to start 2-0 after entering the fourth quarter down in both games and not allowing a single fourth-quarter point.
Now Arizona sets its sights on just its third 3-0 start in 41 years and first since 2012. The Cardinals do so against the rival 49ers, who will be looking to bounce back from a 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday night.
After opening the year with a win over Dallas, San Francisco took part in its first home game at the new Levi's Stadium, but failed to hold a 17-0 lead as Colin Kaepernick was intercepted three times.
"I made the throws I wanted to, they made plays on the ball," said Kaepernick, who threw for 248 yards and a score while also rushing for 66 yards.
Michael Crabtree hauled in seven balls for 82 yards and a score for San Francisco, while Frank Gore ran for 63 yards on 13 carries and registered his first rushing touchdown of the season.
However, turnovers and penalties cost San Francisco the game despite the defense holding Chicago to just 216 net yards. That included just 46 on the ground.
San Francisco has won nine of its last 10 versus the Cardinals and four of the past five in Arizona. The Niners lead the all-time series 28-17.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cardinals waited as long as they could before deciding to go with Stanton, who had to overcome getting sacked four times but didn't turn the ball over and made the plays he had to in the win.
Arians said that Palmer, who threw for over 400 yards the last time he faced San Francisco, will play if and when he is able, but it also sounds like the club doesn't want to rush him back until he is ready.
"I think anytime you are dealing with nerves, there is concern," said Arians. "I saw what happened with Peyton (Manning) and how long it took with him, but his was after neck surgery. This is just a bruised nerve that's being ornery."
Arians is claiming to be confident in sticking with Stanton, who had to wait a while to win his third straight start. His previous win came on Dec. 19, 2010.
"You've been hearing me talk about it, but you have to see it to believe it," Arians said of Stanton's ability. "And, he can play much better. I think he was a little careful at times, threw some balls early because he was playing fast in his mind and the receivers weren't quite there yet. He can play better, especially in the red zone."
Stanton targeted Larry Fitzgerald 10 times versus the Giants, hooking up with the wideout six times for 51 yards. Fitzgerald has 12 catches and 230 yards in his past two versus the Niners.
While it is unknown if Palmer can play, the Cardinals are expected to get outside linebacker John Abraham back.
Abraham took a leave of absence from the club as he considered retirement following a concussion suffered in Week 1. However, he has in fact decided to return and is expected to start if he is medically cleared.
Abraham is the NFL's active leader in sacks with 133 1/2 and led Arizona with 11 1/2 sacks last season.
Arizona did manage a pair of sacks of Eli Manning as well as two interceptions without Abraham on the field versus the Giants, with defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Rashad Johnson both getting to the quarterback.
Campbell has a sack in four of his past five versus the Niners.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu could also see his role expand this weekend after making his season debut last Sunday. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL last December, ending a promising rookie campaign.
The Niners are hoping to have tight end Vernon Davis in the lineup after he suffered an ankle injury and missed most of the fourth quarter versus the Bears. Davis has been a hassle for Arizona to cover in 16 previous meetings, with the tight end notching 54 catches for 811 yards and nine touchdowns.
San Francisco also got a scare when fellow tight end Vance McDonald suffered a knee injury -- leaving Derek Carrier as next man up -- but he is only day-to- day and could play this weekend.
Kaepernick has never lost to Arizona as a starter, going 3-0 with six touchdowns to one interception for a 106.4 passer rating.
Arizona fans will get a look at a former Cardinal in Anquan Boldin, who is in his second season with the rival Niners after spending time in Baltimore. He was a second-round pick by the Cards in 2003 and played for seven seasons in Arizona.
Boldin won Offensive Rookie of the Year after setting the NFL rookie record for receptions in a season with 101. He ended up with 586 catches for 7,520 yards and 44 touchdowns with the Cardinals, setting a club record for receptions that has since been passed by Fitzgerald.
Boldin's first return to Arizona came last December and he had game highs of nine catches, 149 yards with a touchdown.
Despite the offense's past success versus the Cardinals, the 49ers will need to clean things up with regards to penalties. They were flagged 16 times for 118 yards versus the Bears after taking 11 penalties versus Dallas.
"Yes, it's a big factor and we have to, individually, players and coaches teaching and addressing it and coaching it. We'll try to be better for it. That's something we'll work on," said Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith picked up his third sack of the season versus the Bears and one of his four career games of at least three sacks came against the Cardinals on Jan. 2, 2011.
Arizona is off to a hot start, but has certainly played with fire by needing near-flawless fourth-quarter comebacks. That may be easier said than done against San Francisco, a talented defensive club even without linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVarro Bowman.
The Cardinals probably need a healthy Palmer to have a chance at winning this game as San Francisco has made it a habit of bouncing back strong from losses under Harbaugh.
That should continue this weekend.
Sports Network predicted outcome: 49ers 20, Cardinals 14