(AP) — The Arizona Cardinals like to consider the San Francisco 49ers their biggest rival. The problem is, to be a rival you have to win once in a while.
The 49ers, newly crowned champions of the NFC West, have beaten Arizona five times in a row heading into their matchup on Sunday.
"Eventually you've got to stand up and fight and go out and get a victory," Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Enough has to be enough at some point. For it to be a rivalry, you've got to beat them."
Four of the last five matchups haven't even been close, with the 49ers outscoring Arizona by a combined 112-29.
"That doesn't matter," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "That doesn't have anything to do with this game. I mean, you could lose 50 in a row and the next game you could kill them. That's the NFL."
After a six-game losing streak, Arizona has won four of five to improve to 5-7. The lone loss in that span was at San Francisco, when the Cardinals committed five turnovers against the 49ers' brutal defense in a 23-7 San Francisco victory. Since then, the Cardinals have won at St. Louis 23-20 and, last Sunday, a wild 19-13 overtime victory over Dallas.
Amazingly, the Cardinals remain in the hunt for a wild card playoff berth.
"They're on a high horse," 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown said. "They came out with a 'w' (against Dallas) so we've definitely got to go to their place and slow down that momentum."
Coach Jim Harbaugh said he expects no letdown the week after San Francisco clinched the NFC West title in a 26-0 victory over St. Louis.
"I'm not a psychologist," he said, "but I think our guys understand how important this is and that every week is a football fight and there's a way to prepare for that physically, mentally and emotionally. I trust our guys to get that done.'"
Specifically, there is the matter of a first-round bye in the playoffs if San Francisco (10-2) finishes with one of the conference's best two records.
"We're able to win a few more games and secure a second-round seed, so that's kind of our mindset right now," 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith said. "It starts with going down to Arizona and playing a pretty good team."
The Cardinals are practicing as if San Francisco's Patrick Willis will play, even though his status is uncertain. Arizona offensive coordinator Larry Miller said Willis "might be the best middle linebacker in football."
"You give him a tremendous amount of respect," Miller said. "He can play downhill, he's physical at the point, rarely loses those one-on-one matchups, has speed to stay on the field in 'dime' situations. He's very smart, especially in their scheme, so he presents you with a lot of matchup issues."
Willis went down with a right hamstring injury late in Sunday's victory.
Kevin Kolb, out for five weeks with a right turf toe injury and bruise on the side of the same foot, returned at quarterback for Arizona against the Cowboys. After a rusty first half, he threw for 203 yards after halftime, including a 52-yard pass play to LaRod Stephens-Howling for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. He hopes it serves as a sign of things to come.
"It happens to everybody. You just find a groove in a game and you just start trusting things and your natural ability just takes over," Kolb said. "That's obviously where I need to be as a player and where we need to be as an offense. Continue the success our defense has had, and we can be a dangerous team."
Whisenhunt said Arizona's defense played well against the 49ers, even though it gave up 431 yards, but the team couldn't overcome the turnover avalanche. John Skelton, then playing in place of the injured Kolb, was benched after throwing his third interception. Third-string quarterback Rich Bartel threw 23 yards to Fitzgerald midway through the final quarter for Arizona's lone score.
San Francisco's Smith said it appears that the Cardinals are trying to speed up their offense with the return of Kolb.
"They're running a little bit quicker tempo on offense," Smith said. "He definitely keeps plays alive with his legs. It looks like they've installed more stuff with him in there, so they're definitely a better team with him in there."
Beanie Wells and the Cardinals running game will slam into a defense that ranks first in the NFL against the run at 71.8 yards per game. San Francisco has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season.
"It's how everybody works together, DBs included," Smith explained. "Everybody knows their run lanes, everybody knows their fits, and everybody does their job and is held accountable to that. It's just a really good, solid group of guys that know how to play together and know what the other guy is going to do, and know what they expect you to do."
Arizona's 6-foot-8 defensive end Calais Campbell said he does hold a special place in his head for the 49ers, recent outcomes notwithstanding.
"This is one team that I dislike more than others," he said. "It's kind of the way it's been around here. I really want to win this game."