Capitals

49ers look to clinch NFC West against Cardinals

49ers look to clinch NFC West against Cardinals

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Just two months ago, the San Francisco 49ers grabbed control of the NFC West from the Arizona Cardinals behind Alex Smith's near perfect performance on a Monday night in the desert.

Oh, how much has changed since.

The slow and steady Smith has been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, a high-risk, high-reward quarterback who coach Jim Harbaugh is counting on to lead the suddenly fragile 49ers (10-4-1) deep into the playoffs. The Cardinals (5-10) are on their fourth starting quarterback in Brian Hoyer and have lost 10 of 11 games to put coach Ken Whisenhunt's job in jeopardy.

One team is headed to the postseason, the other for a head start on the NFL draft. The only question left is where each will be seeded for their final destinations.

San Francisco can clinch its second straight division title and keep its shot at a first-round bye alive in Sunday's regular-season finale against Arizona at Candlestick Park. The once promising Cardinals are 60 minutes away beginning another offseason of upheaval.

``Sometimes in a game like this, anything goes,'' Harbaugh said. ``Their mindset will be to win the game. So you have to be ready. You have to be alert for just about anything.''

At the very least, last week should've reminded the 49ers of that much.

San Francisco's 42-13 shellacking in Seattle handed Harbaugh the worst loss of his NFL coaching career. It showed how flimsy the 49ers and their second-ranked defense can be without Justin Smith, the versatile lineman whose streak of 185 games ended because of a partially torn left triceps. Smith is not expected to play against Arizona and his status for the playoffs remains murky.

Harbaugh has shown the ability to rebound his team quickly. The 49ers are 7-0 after a loss or tie in his tenure, and he'll need to rally his players again at the most important time.

The 49ers can still secure the No. 2 playoff seed - and the first-round bye that comes with it - with a win coupled with a Green Bay loss at Minnesota. If they lose and Seattle (10-5) wins at home against St. Louis, the Seahawks will steal the NFC West and send San Francisco on the road for the first round.

``It's for the NFC West,'' 49ers running back Frank Gore said. ``That was our goal coming into this season - to win the NFC West. We get a chance to do that this Sunday. That's what we want. We're upset about last week. We've got to win.''

Last week alone should provide an attitude strong enough to keep San Francisco sharp.

Hoyer is making his first NFL start, less than three weeks after the Cardinals claimed him off waivers from Pittsburgh. The former Michigan State quarterback spent three seasons as a backup to Tom Brady in New England, was out of a job for most of the year and then relieved Ryan Lindley in Arizona's 28-13 loss to Chicago last week. Hoyer has appeared in 14 NFL games, including 13 with the Patriots. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards with one interception against the Bears while operating an offense that ranks last in the league.

``It's a crazy business, but to me it's the best job in the world,'' Hoyer said.

Quarterback will be near the top of Arizona's to-do list when the season is over, although just who will be in charge of that decision is uncertain.

Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said he will assess the situation after the final game to determine if Whisenhunt comes back for the last year of his contract. General manager Rod Graves also might be gone. If Whisenhunt stays, some of his assistants almost certainly won't.

``It's been tough,'' Whisenhunt said. ``This business is about winning games. And when you don't do that, it makes everything more difficult.''

Arizona started the season with four straight wins and still had a chance to pull even with San Francisco after dropping three straight in October. Then the 49ers routed the Cardinals 24-3 on Oct. 29, a game Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a 157.1 rating in a performance that earned NFC offensive player of the week honors.

Smith suffered a concussion the next game against St. Louis, Kaepernick took over and had his own Monday night breakout in a home win against Chicago. Kaepernick, a second-round pick out of Nevada last year with a strong arm and fast feet, is 4-2 as a starter.

The sometimes spectacular, sometimes shaky quarterback will lead an offense that has been depleted by season-ending injuries to wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. Tight end Vernon Davis also must clear the league's NFL concussion protocol after getting knocked off his feet by Seattle's Kam Chancellor last week.

The absence of so many key targets will put even more pressure on Kaepernick in a quarterback debate that continues to rage on - maybe this week more than most.

``I just think that Alex worked for seven years to get to the position he was in,'' said Cardinals guard Adam Snyder, who spent seven years playing alongside Smith in San Francisco. ``He was 19-5 (the past two seasons) and had the best QB rating in the league and was doing his job to win games, you know?

``I don't know. It was surprising to me. But, hey, they get paid to make those decisions, and that's the decision they went with.''

--

Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Quick Links

Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

usatsi_10360906.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

WASHINGTON -- Having already won their first series at Nationals Park since April 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies will go for the sweep of Washington on Sunday night.

Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08 ERA) faces Nationals right-hander Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta was drafted by the Nationals in 2013 and went to the Phillies in 2015 as part of the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

After struggling for three straight starts -- giving up 13 runs in 14 innings -- Pivetta allowed two runs and four hits in 7 1/3 innings of a no-decision against the St. Louis Cardinals last time out, striking out a career-high 13 batters.

"That's some of the best stuff I've seen him have all year," catcher Andrew Knapp told mlb.com. "The curveball was electric."

Pivetta got 11 swings and misses with the curveball.

"It was nice to have it back," Pivetta told mlb.com. "It all started with my delivery. I was staying up through it, not trying to rush too much and it worked out."

It his first start -- and second big-league appearance -- the 24-year-old Rodriguez picked up a win against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. He allowed five runs, four hits and three walks in five innings.

Rodriguez and Satuday's losing pitcher, Erick Fedde, are filling in for injured starters Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson.

The Phillies have outscored the Nationals 17-5 in the fist two games of the series. On Saturday, Maikel Franco had four hits and Carlos Santana homered to back Aaron Nola in a 5-3 victory.

"That was just a tremendous all-around baseball game," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said of Franco. "It's so interesting how we've been looking for him to be not just a hitter but a defender and a baserunner and an all-around athlete."

Franco drove in a run and scored twice, including the go-ahead run when he scored just ahead of the tag on Jesmuel Valentin's sacrifice fly.

The Phillies, who have won six of seven, pounded out double-digit hits for the second day in a row in Washington.

"They have a lot of patient hitters," Fedde said of the Phillies. "I think that's what makes it tough. Guys aren't swinging at bunch of junk, so you have to attack them."

The Phillies have now won four straight series for the first time since May 2016 and are 2-0 in what will be a stretch of 10 games against the Nationals and the New York Yankees.

Anthony Rendon homered and Daniel Murphy had a two-run single for Washington, which has lost three of four while scoring nine runs.

"Look, I've got all the confidence in the world we're going to start hitting," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We'll start scoring some runs. Right now, the bullpen is a little beat up. We've got to get them going again."

Rendon is doing his part. In his las 15 games, he is batting .382 with seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Hellickson (right groin strain) will make a rehab start Sunday for Class A Potomac and then is expected to rejoin the Nationals' rotation.

Hernandez said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) is about a week from beginning a rehab assignment.