GLENDALE, Ariz. -- While walking from the visitors' locker room to the team bus, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis offered his initial thoughts on San Francisco's first-round playoff opponent, the Green Bay Packers.
"Aaron Rodgers is a competitor," Willis said. "They have a good football team that fights. And it's going to be cold."
At that point, Willis smiled. He and his teammates don't dread the cold that awaits them in northern Wisconsin. They embrace it.
"The big thing for us is, we've just got guys with heart, guys that want to win at all costs," Willis said Sunday after the 49ers' win-at-all-costs, 23-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
"Regardless of whether we're on concrete, in the cold, in the rain, whatever it may be, we just want to win."
The 49ers didn't have as much at stake in Week 17 as the Cardinals, who had to win -- and get help -- to make the playoffs. Although San Francisco had a slim chance at home-field advantage, the result of its game didn't end up mattering except for seeding.
Yet the 49ers battled until the last second, engineering a last-minute drive to set up Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal as time expired. That's the mindset they'll need to beat the Packers next Sunday and make another Super Bowl run.
"We could have gotten down today," veteran tackle Joe Staley said. "We had a lull and kind of fell asleep. But we were able to come back."
The 49ers allowed the Cardinals to rally from a 17-0 deficit before securing their sixth consecutive victory. San Francisco's 12-4 record is tied for second best in the NFC. The Packers are 8-7-1, including a season-opening loss against the 49ers. Yet because of the NFL's divisional format, Green Bay gets the home game. Is that fair?
"That's just the way it is," Staley said. "You've got to win your division to get a home game. We weren't able to win our division this year. We had a lot of opportunities to."
The Cardinals finished 10-6 and probably would have made the playoffs if they played in any division other than the rugged NFC West. Instead, they earned the distinction of Best Team To Not Make The Postseason. It wasn't what they were hoping for, but it's something to build on, especially after a 5-11 finish in 2012.
"It's been a good year," first-year Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "I really hate to see this football team's season end, because it's been so much fun working with them (and) because no team stays the same in the NFL anymore.
"We will do everything we can to keep the core group of this football team together, because there are a lot of winners in this locker room, and they learned how to win this year."
Arians is just starting to build his program in Arizona; Jim Harbaugh has had the 49ers in contention since he arrived in 2011, guiding them to the playoffs three years in a row, including a runner-up finish last season.
It wasn't always a smooth ride this year. The 49ers had two two-game losing streaks -- the first of their kind during Harbaugh's tenure -- and lost linebacker Aldon Smith for almost two months to off-the-field issues. Their promising young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, also struggled at times, at one point topping 200 passing yards only once in a nine-game stretch.
But Kaepernick seems to be surging at the right time. Over the final three regular-season games, he threw six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Kaepernick's 310 passing yards vs. Arizona -- including a 29-yard dart to Quinton Patton to set up Dawson's winning kick -- were his most since he passed for 412 in Week 1 against Green Bay.
"He threw a heck of a ball," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick's last pass. "There's only one place that ball could have been thrown from my vantage point, because it was good coverage."
As he addressed the media, Harbaugh wore the scuffed black cleats he has donned throughout the team's winning streak. They seem like ideal footwear for the frozen tundra.
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