49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh met with the media today and one of the first questions he was asked was about the 49ers-Cardinals rivalry. When asked if the Cardinals were big rivals, Coach Harbaugh gave his stock reply about the next game always being the most important game.
Every game is important, but this is one time where "the next game is the most important" rings true beyond just the usual cliches. In this case, the 49ers are not only facing a division opponent, but they are heading on the road for this divisional game. Thus far, home teams have run the table, seen most notably in the Seahawks 0-3 start to division play.
Last night I chatted with Alex Davidson from Revenge of the Birds in a Google+ Hangout, and we joked a bit about how the first team to win a divisional road game likely locks up the division. Even as the division remains a relatively tight race, the 49ers are getting heavy odds to win the division at this point. A win over the Cardinals gives them a huge leg up in the race for NFC West control. Add in the fact that the Seahawks are traveling to Detroit and the Rams are hosting New England, and this is a big one for the 49ers.
Whether the 49ers win or lose, the next game will become the new most important game, but for now this is the biggest game. Even looking back on the games to date, I would weight this one a bit more than the previous games, including the 49ers win over Seattle. Road division games, particularly in a tight division race, are almost worth double. Obviously it's not a second win, but there is a certain weight that needs to be attached to these kinds of wins.