The Cardinals are trying to snap out of a funk in which they have dropped nine of their last 10 meetings to the 49ers.
As each successful week passes, the Cardinals step closer to garnering the league-wide acclaim held by two of their NFC West counterparts.
The Seahawks and 49ers have earned it by each making the Super Bowl in the past two years, and the Cardinals continue to make their case, with 10 wins a year ago and an undefeated start through two weeks in 2014.
They surely have Seattle's attention after leaving CenturyLink Field late last year with a 17-10 victory, but if the Cardinals are to
make this a legitimate three-team race, there would be no better place to start than a win over San Francisco on Sunday.
While the Cardinals' overall performance has varied over the past five seasons, little has changed in matchups with the 49ers. San Francisco has won nine of the past ten games in this series, many in blowout fashion. While the Cardinals seem on the cusp of top-tier NFL legitimacy, San Francisco still serves as a roadblock.
"Until we finish one, it won't be a rivalry or anything else," coach Bruce Arians said. "It can't be a rivalry if you get your ass kicked this many times."
Arians was on the other side of the coin during his years coaching with the Steelers, and doesn't believe San Francisco holds this game in the same regard as the Cardinals.
"There wasn't any bad blood from us to them last year, because it's kind of like the Browns and the Steelers," Arians said. "When you beat them 10 times it's a rivalry for the one team but not the other. I'd imagine they think the Seahawks are their rival, not us."
While the Cardinals went 0-2 against the 49ers in 2013, both games were competitive. They trailed 22-20 in San Francisco and
seemed ready to take a second-half lead, but wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald fumbled in 49ers territory in the eventual 32-20 defeat.
San Francisco jumped out to a 17-0 advantage in the season finale but the Cardinals clawed back to tie it at 20, only to watch Phil Dawson connect on a 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
"Last year we let those two games get away from us," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Now we see that we can compete, not only with those guys, but with the best of them."
The Cardinals are a confident bunch after nine wins in their past 11 games dating back to last season, but what about a residual mental effect from a half-decade of lopsided results? That seems unlikely, as 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was unaware of his team's recent dominance – "that shows you how much of an edge it is," he said -- and Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein said the regular roster turnover gives each season a new identity.
"The 2014 Cardinals haven't played the 49ers yet," Sendlein said. "We have to go in with the mindset that we can win and will win."
One of the game's key matchups will feature the Cardinals' secondary against the 49ers' passing game. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are quarterback Colin Kaepernick's top two wide receiver targets and offseason addition Stevie Johnson brings depth to the position. Star tight end Vernon Davis suffered an ankle injury against the Bears but could play Sunday, and he's another tough matchup.
Arians said Peterson's performance last week against the Giants was the poorest he's seen from him since coming to Arizona, and Peterson's ability to bounce back is important. Crabtree had a combined 18 catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Cardinals in 2012, although he was held to three receptions for 29 yards in last year's finale after missing the first matchup due to injury.
"They do a lot of different things to get their guys open and make it possible for him to make big plays," Peterson said. "He did have a couple big games on us, so I'm looking forward to the game, and I'm always looking forward to matching up to whoever I'm guarding."
The Cardinals are in sole possession of first place in the NFC West through the first two weeks, and while it's still early, another victory could be vital. It would not only put them two games ahead of the 49ers and break the bad streak, but it could announce the Cardinals' arrival as another NFC West power.
"Any time you go head up against a division opponent, it's a two-game swing every time," Sendlein said. "Especially with a team like San Francisco which has been at the top the past few years, we play them the final week of the year, and mentally we want to know we can compete with that and have success."