GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals had a chance to sneak into the playoffs by finishing 11-5. But that alone would not have been enough to get them to the postseason.
In addition to having to beat the visiting San Francisco 49ers, they needed the New Orleans Saints to lose at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Neither scenario happened on Sunday.
The 49ers got a 40-yard field goal from Phil Dawson as time expired to beat the Cardinals 23-20 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman played a major role in the 49ers' victory, getting an interception and recording a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The Saints, meanwhile, rolled over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-17 behind four touchdown passes and a touchdown run by quarterback Drew Brees.
The 49ers earned the NFC's No. 5 seed and will travel to Green Bay to take on the Packers, the NFC No. 4 seed, in their first-round playoff game next Sunday.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was 28-of-49 passing for 407 yards and two touchdowns for the Cardinals and became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 or more yards in a season for three different teams.
He did it twice while with the Bengals and also last season for the Raiders, but it was not enough to get his team into the postseason.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, in his first game back in Arizona since leaving the Cardinals following the 2009 season, caught nine passes for 145 yards and a touchdown for the 49ers, who are headed to the playoffs for a third consecutive season under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was 21-of-34 for 306 yards and two touchdowns for San Francisco (12-4), which won its sixth straight game to end the regular season.
What the Cardinals said
"I wish I had six, seven more years to play with them, but I don't want to play football six, seven more years. But I do believe that in the next year or two, if we keep this team together and they keep buying in, this team will be one of the most dominating teams in the NFL for years and years with this coaching staff." -- DT Darnell Dockett.
What the 49ers said
"It's a new season but the momentum definitely carries. We have to make sure we're on top of everything. It can be one-and-done if you aren't on top of it. ... We have to win. That's the biggest thing. We have to go to their place this time and we need to get this win." -- QB Colin Kaepernick, on winning six straight to close out the regular season and now, heading to Green Bay to face the Packers in an NFC wild-card playoff game.
What we learned about the Cardinals
1. Carson Palmer has shown enough to more than warrant being brought back next season as the team's starting quarterback. He's under contract for another year, but when the team traded for him in the offseason, it was no sure thing he would last two years, let alone one because there were concerns his lack of mobility and a patchwork offensive line might get him killed. But he played every snap all season and passed for more than 4,000 yards and kept this team in the playoff hunt.
2. The Arizona defense is for real. It entered this game ranked sixth overall and was No. 1 against the run, a factor that showed up again on Sunday. The Cardinals held the 49ers to 83 yards and limited Frank Gore, the only running back to gain 100 yards on them this season, to just 14 yards on 13 carries. Arizona is expected to return the core group of its defense next season, but inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is set to become a free agent.
What we learned about the 49ers
1. Receiver Anquan Boldin isn't old, he's only getting better. Boldin had a brilliant game in his first game back to Arizona since being traded to Baltimore following the 2009 season. He finished with nine catches for 149 yards and a touchdown and showed his ability to pick up yards after the catch once again, especially when the 49ers needed it.
2. Receiver Quinton Patton is gaining confidence and has the trust of QB Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers targeted Patton only three times on Sunday, but he came up with a huge catch at crunch time, hauling in a 29-yard pass with two seconds left to play to set up Phil Dawson's game-winning 40-yard field goal. "Quinton went up and battled," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The corner (Antoine Cason) had really good leverage. I thought Quinton did a nice job bumping and securing the catch coming in. Presence of mind to come in inbounds. A really strong play by him. I'm really excited for him."