This is probably the biggest game the Arizona Cardinals will play since their magical 2008 season. San Francisco vs. Arizona. A Cardinals victory would lift them into a first place tie with the 49ers and give them a huge boost in much needed confidence. This is a team on a three-game losing streak and this contest presents them with a real opportunity to establish themselves as legitimate NFC West contenders. Let's take a look at Monday night's matchup:
San Francisco (5-2)
The 49ers come in well rested, having last played on Oct. 18 against Seattle. That rest has helped running back Frank Gore, who is battling sore ribs. He will play though and is the key to the 49ers running attack. Gore is fifth in the NFL in rushing (601 yards) and owns a stellar 5.8 yards per carry average. He has also scored four touchdowns and will help quarterback Alex Smith set up play action. Also keep an eye on Gore's backup – Kendall Hunter. The Oklahoma State product has gained 258 yards and owns a fine 5.2 yards per carry average. Both players are the reason why the Niners rank second in the league in rushing offense.
Smith has had two poor games in a row, tossing four interceptions and just one touchdown. Expect the Cardinals, ranked fourth in sacks (22), to try and collapse the pocket and put as much sustained pressure on Smith as possible. Smith threw just two touchdown passes in two games against Arizona last season. Tight end Vernon Davis, who was held without a catch last week, will be an important outlet for Smith over the middle and against the blitz.
One element that might help decide this contest can be special teams and San Francisco owns one of the best kickers in the league in David Akers. Akers led the league in points last season, has 57 points this year and has already tied the NFL record with a 63-yard boot earlier this season against Green Bay. In what is expected to be a low-scoring, defensive battle, Akers could be the difference.
Can the Red Birds protect John Skelton enough so he can be effective against a strong 49ers defensive unit? That is the key question for the Red Birds Monday night. It won't be easy. They have allowed the most sacks by far this season (35, nine more than runner-up Green Bay) and will be facing a unit that is allowing just 14.3 PPG (second in the NFL). San Francisco also paces the league in yards from scrimmage, allowing just 272 yards per outing. Who do they face? A Cardinals squad that is next to last in the league in offensive yards from scrimmage (293 per game). Only Jacksonville is worse.
This will be a real challenge indeed.
Arizona hopes to establish a running game behind LaRod Stephens-Howling, who enjoyed a career-best game last week against the Vikings. He'll be key to help set up play action passing for Skelton. It's been a tall order against the 49ers though - the Cardinals have not scored a rushing TD against them since 2009.
The Cardinals will have to find success through the air and that won't be easy either. San Francisco leads the league in pass defense, allowing only 173 yards a game. Larry Fitzgerald has had success against them throughout the course of his career, including a 149-yard receiving, one TD performance in Arizona's 21-19 triumph last December. The offensive line is a disaster so Skelton is going to need time to find Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts, who is coming off his best performance of the season with seven catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota. Roberts has five touchdown catches in 2012.
If the Cardinals can control the clock and protect Skelton properly (the Niners have just 11 sacks so far) they have a shot. That's a big IF though.
Prediction: The first one to 20 should win this defensive tussle. The Cardinals have had trouble stopping the run lately so Gore should enjoy a big game. These team are heading in opposite directions. Look for four to five sacks from the Niners defense as Skelton has to run for his life (yet again). Despite what should be a loud and raucous crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Red Birds drop their fourth straight. 49ers 20, Cardinals 13.
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