Defense builds confidence against lowly Cardinals

December 30, 2012, 8:00 pm
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Arizona Cardinals made a point to test the right side of the 49ers' defensive front on Sunday.

And after some initial success, the Caridinals had a difficult time running at the 49ers, who played their second game without All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith. The Cardinals were held to just 3.2 yards per rushing attempt in the 49ers' 27-13 victory to clinch the NFC West title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

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The 49ers earned a bye week and will open the playoffs Saturday, Jan. 12 at 5:00 p.m. PST at Candlestick Park against an opponent to be determined next weekend after the wild-card round.

"We just came closer," said defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who has taken over for the injured Smith. "That's all we did. We came closer as a team. We knew what was on the line. We knew we had to make it happen."

The 49ers hope Smith will be able to make a contribution in the playoffs after nearly a month to rest, rehab, strengthen and heal a partially torn triceps tendon in his left arm.

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"We understand that the guys who step in for him have to play close to his level," 49ers All-Pro safety Donte Whitner said. "He's a tremendous player for us. He does a lot against the run. He frees things up for the pass rush. We miss him. He vowed to be back for the playoffs. He'll be ready and we'll be back to our normal defense. But today, we had a good showing."

The 49ers had everything working for them in the season-finale against the moribund Cardinals. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, claimed off waivers earlier this month, made his first NFL start. He completed 19 of 34 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

The 49ers' defense allowed just 262 yards of total offense.

"We had talked about it during the week that our defense had to come out and play from this point on," 49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. "And today was a great start of what we need to do."

A key sequence for the 49ers occurred after the 49ers took a 10-6 lead on the opening drive of the third quarter. Jean Francois sacked Hoyer for a 9-yard loss. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks recorded another 9-yard sack. And Willis crushed Arizona running back William Powell for no gain on a third-and-28 play.

The 49ers forced a punt, and the offense quickly scored another touchdown for a 17-6 lead.

"The crowd sparked us a lot at halftime," said cornerback Tarell Brown, who recorded an interception. "Coming out after halftime, we knew that we had to buckle down, just because the game was close. We didn't want to make it close. We wanted to go out there and prove we were the best team on the field."

Having left no doubt about that, the 49ers can now turn their attention toward getting ready for their first playoff game.

"Truthfully, I believe we're going to be ready, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Whitner said. "We understand that the game goes up a notch. You have to put it all on the line each and every play and each and every game. We have the type of character guys that are going to come out and be prepared."