(AP) — Jonathan Goodwin offers some perspective in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room.
He won 13 straight games to start the season with the New Orleans Saints two years ago. Then they dropped their final three before going on to capture the franchise's lone Super Bowl title.
"We lost the last three games going into the playoffs, so that kind of calmed everything down a little bit," said Goodwin, the 49ers' first-year center in his 10th NFL season.
That's why Goodwin guards against getting overly excited about the current seven-game winning streak by San Francisco (8-1) — even with a commanding five-game lead in the NFC West and Arizona coming to town having lost four straight in the series. The Cardinals (3-6) managed only 13 total points over the previous two meetings.
"It definitely feels good to be winning, but there are still seven games left before the postseason even starts," Goodwin said. "In this league, you can't get ahead of yourself."
The Saints realized early in 2009 it could be a special season. The 49ers sure hoped that would be the case for them this year despite the lockout slowing that process after San Francisco hired coach Jim Harbaugh away from nearby Stanford.
Yet nobody could have envisioned the Niners being nearly this good — as in one 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas in Week 2 from being unbeaten.
Whether he says it or not, Harbaugh has changed the culture for this franchise and brought back memories of the dynasty days and those five Super Bowl rings won in the 1980s and '90s.
"I don't think you create an identity. I think you become it," Harbaugh said. "You become what you are. You become your identity. From my standpoint, being around these guys, this team, these coaches, it's the team, the team, the team. It's about the team."
It has been that way for this group since well before the season opener back on Sept. 11 against Seattle. That was the last time the streaking 49ers were tested by a divisional opponent, and they whipped the Seahawks 33-17 in Harbaugh's NFL debut. The Niners haven't slowed down since.
From quarterback Alex Smith's poise in the pocket and heady decision-making to the key contributions of newcomers Goodwin, cornerback Carlos Rogers and kicker David Akers, San Francisco is on a roll like nothing this organization has experienced in 14 years.
"They're an impressive football team," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Kudos to Alex. I think they're a very talented bunch and they're well coached. Coach Harbaugh's done a great job with those guys."
Now, the Niners look to clinch the division — and their first playoff berth since 2002 — as soon as possible considering both Arizona and Seattle are 3-6 and St. Louis 2-7.
Not that this game is a gimme.
"This is not a trap game for us. This is a rivalry game," left tackle Joe Staley said. "We expect the best effort out of them. It's always a very physical game regardless of records. We came into their place when they went to the Super Bowl that year, went to their house and beat them. We had a bad record that year."
The Cardinals have to be a little more confident coming to Candlestick Park this time after snapping an 11-game road losing streak against the Eagles last week — a team the 49ers also came from behind to beat 24-23 in Philly on Oct. 2.
John Skelton, playing for injured starting quarterback Kevin Kolb the past two weeks, connected with Early Doucet on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 1:53 left in the Cardinals' 21-17 victory.
"You have to have that sense of urgency, and I think as an offense we really do that," Skelton said. "We turn it up a notch in the fourth quarter."
Kolb is nursing an injured right foot that might keep him out again. Skelton knows there will be some tense moments Sunday against a talented Niners team and top defense.
"It's intense. It's probably as good as any in football," he said. "They are 8-1. We've got two wins recently, so we are kind of on the upswing, too. We know it's going to be a physical and intense game, and we just have to minimize the mistakes and be successful that way."
Larry Fitzgerald is coming off a two-touchdown game for an Arizona team that has suddenly won two straight on the heels of a six-game skid after not getting back-to-back victories all of last season. Four of Fitzgerald's five TDs have come in road games.
"I've played Larry a couple of times," said Rogers, who has five interceptions in his first season with San Francisco after spending his first six years with Washington. "It's been a good matchup. We know how Larry is, a great receiver. One of the best. Deep-ball guy. I don't think his speed is like that, but he can get open any time. That's going to be a great matchup again."
The Cardinals can't afford mistakes against these 49ers, like Jay Feely's first-quarter missed field goals from 35 and 43 yards last week.
San Francisco's defense stopped Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the waning moments of a 27-20 victory last Sunday. Justin Smith batted down a pass on fourth down from the 10 to seal it. Those kinds of plays didn't go the 49ers' way in recent years, when they regularly were on the other end of late-game heartbreakers.
Alex Smith has now led four fourth-quarter comebacks, three during a 4-0 road start.
"It's one of those things where we understand what we have to do," linebacker Parys Haralson said. "I think as far as the defense and the team, it's a team with a lot of fight. We don't give up, man. We know that it's a 60-minute football game."
Two San Francisco stars sat out the final meeting last season against Arizona. Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis didn't start for the first time in his career after undergoing a second surgery on his broken right hand. Running back Frank Gore was sidelined for his fifth straight game to end the season after fracturing his right hip.
Gore's status is in question for this week because of a right ankle injury.
Personnel aside, the 49ers are prepared to treat this game as one of equal magnitude to last week's showdown with the Giants — and that much-anticipated Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Thanksgiving affair next Thursday when the 49ers face Harbaugh's big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens.
"They play us hard," tight end Vernon Davis said of the Cardinals. "They match our intensity. We can't take them lightly. We have to go out and attack them right away."