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NFL Preview - San Francisco (3-7) at Arizona (3-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the NFL's schedule-makers designated this week's game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers as a stand-alone Monday night showdown, they probably were hoping for a scenario in which the two divisional foes were tied in the NFC West standings.
While that will be the case when the teams lock horns at University of Phoenix Stadium for this late-November matchup, neither the Cardinals nor the 49ers enter this portion of the season in a position that has been customary for one of the combatants and expected for the other.
Two-time defending NFC West champ Arizona has struggled at the onset of the post-Kurt Warner era, as a 3-7 record through the initial 10 games of this season has the franchise in danger of its first losing campaign since 2006. San Francisco, a chic preseason choice to overtake the Cardinals for division supremacy, has also dropped seven of its first 10 tests and appears on its way to an eighth consecutive year with a losing mark.
Despite those uninspiring ledgers, Monday's clash still carries considerable importance due to the shaky state of the NFC West. Both clubs trail 5-5 Seattle by only two games for first place in the division, with the 49ers getting a chance to close the gap when the Seahawks visit Candlestick Park in Week 13.
San Francisco kept itself in contention with two recent wins that coincided with former Heisman Trophy recipient Troy Smith's elevation to the starting quarterback position. That momentum, as well as the Smith-led offense, was subsequently stalled with a discouraging 21-0 home loss to Tampa Bay in which the 49ers mustered an anemic 189 total yards and 11 first downs.
Smith completed just 16-of-31 for 148 yards and was intercepted once while being sacked six times working behind a patchwork offensive line that didn't have regular left tackle Joe Staley, sidelined indefinitely with a fractured left fibula sustained in San Francisco's 23-20 overtime win over St. Louis the previous week.
That lackluster performance won't trigger another quarterback change, however, as Niners head coach Mike Singletary will stick with Smith for the time being even with opening-week starter and 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith now recovered from a sprained shoulder that opened the door to playing time for his counterpart.
Arizona has been plagued by quarterback woes and a paucity of offense as well during its disappointing run. Triggermen Derek Anderson and Max Hall have presided over a unit that's 31st in the NFL in total yards and third-down conversion percentage, and third from the bottom in rushing yards.
There are problems on the other side of the ball as well, as the Cardinals have permitted a league-worst 29.2 points per game and are 29th overall in total defense. Arizona was gashed for 159 rushing yards in last Sunday's 31-13 loss at Kansas City, the club's fifth straight defeat following a 3-2 start.
San Francisco, meanwhile, ranks next-to-last in the NFL in scoring (16.0 ppg) and was shut out at home for the first time since 1977 last week.
San Francisco has a 21-16 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals, including a home-and-home sweep of the eventual NFC West champs last season. The Niners earned a 20-16 victory when the teams met at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 1, and completed the sweep with a 24-9 win at Candlestick Park in Week 14. The Cardinals swept the 2008 home-and-home, including a 29-24 triumph in Glendale. A win on Sunday will give the 49ers their first three- game winning streak over the Cardinals since 2003-04. San Francisco has never won in Arizona in back-to-back seasons.
Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 2-4 against the 49ers as a head coach, while San Francisco's Mike Singletary is 2-1 versus both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals as a head man.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
While the quarterback situation has received the most attention, the real key to San Francisco's success is how running back Frank Gore (801 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 5 total TD) produces behind the troublesome offensive line. The Niners are 3-2 when Gore rushes for 87 yards or more this season and 0-5 when he fails to reach that mark, like the valuable sixth-year pro did in being held to a paltry 23 yards on 12 carries by Tampa Bay last week. Troy Smith (700 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) actually led the team with 45 rushing yards on five scrambles against the Bucs and has some passing skills as well, as evidenced by the career-best 356 yards he put up in the Week 10 win over the Rams. The athletic signal-caller has some quality options in which to work with, as Gore is among the game's premier receiving backs, tight end and 2009 Pro Bowl honoree Vernon Davis (38 receptions, 4 TD) is a matchup nightmare for enemy safeties with his uncanny size/speed combination, and young wideout Michael Crabtree (36 receptions, 4 TD) possesses big-time talent that belies his somewhat ordinary numbers. The 49ers are just 25th in the league in total offense (313.7 ypg) and have converted a below-average 32.6 percent of third- down tries (28th overall).
To say an Arizona defense that returned three Pro Bowlers from last season in lineman Darnell Dockett (33 tackles, 2 sacks), cornerback Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie (33 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) and strong safety Adrian Wilson (47 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) hasn't met expectations is an understatement. In spite of that cast of proven talent, which also includes two more accomplished vets in outside linebacker Joey Porter (39 tackles, 5 sacks) and free safety Kerry Rhodes (59 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PD), the Cardinals have yielded a lackluster 396.8 yards per game, are 28th in the NFL versus the run (135.1 ypg) and 27th against the pass (261.7 ypg). One aspect Arizona has done well in is forcing turnovers, with the team recording 26 takeaways (3rd overall) and scoring a league-best six defensive touchdowns thus far. Porter has been the Cardinals' most effective pass rusher, while Wilson and the inside linebacker pairing of Paris Lenon (74 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Gerald Hayes (20 tackles) the main cogs of a run-stopping group that was unable to contain the Chiefs' outstanding backfield tandem of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones a week ago.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona has had an overall subpar showing on offense for the year, but the team has been able to move the ball some through the air in recent weeks. Anderson (1776 passing yards, 7 TD, 8 INT) backed up a season-best 322 passing yards in a Week 10 loss to Seattle by throwing for 295 yards and a touchdown without an interception against Kansas City last Sunday, while star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (55 receptions, 691 yards, 4 TD) has been far more a factor since running mate Steve Breaston (34 receptions, 548 yards, 1 TD) returned from an in-season knee procedure in late October. The dangerous duo combined for 182 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches against the Chiefs, with rookie Andre Roberts (12 receptions, 1 TD) adding personal highs of six grabs and 52 receiving yards as the No. 3 receiver. Making headway on the ground has been more of a sore spot for the Cardinals, who are averaging just 85.3 rushing yards per game and have attempted the fewest running plays in the league. The ball-carrying combo of Tim Hightower (438 rushing yards, 3 TD, 14 receptions) and Beanie Wells (270 rushing yards, 2 TD) did team up for a respectable 101 yards on 20 tries last week, with the talented Wells finally looking healthy after missing some time earlier in the year with a sore knee.
The Cardinals' strong cast of receivers should be able to get some open looks against a San Francisco stop unit that ranks just 26th overall in pass efficiency defense and has allowed enemy quarterbacks to complete around two- thirds of their throws. To help cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer (23 receptions, 3 INT, 6 PD) and Nate Clements (54 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) combat the formidable Fitzgerald/Breaston twosome, players such as sturdy end Justin Smith (45 tackles, 5 sacks) and outside linebacker Parys Haralson (26 tackles, 4 sacks) will need to create consistent pressure on Anderson, who's been sacked 22 times in his seven starts this season. All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (91 tackles, 4 sacks) can assist in that area as well, as the always- active playmaker showed by registering a pair of sacks on top of a 13-tackle output against Tampa Bay last week. Willis, fellow linebacker Takeo Spikes (62 tackles, 1 INT) and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (27 tackles) form a stout interior core that's helped the 49ers hold opponents to 3.7 yards per rush attempt for the season.
Although it's hard to put much trust in these two erratic offenses, there are a few worthwhile players to single out for fantasy purposes. The best of the bunch is Gore, who can be expected to get a wealth of touches and gets to face a porous Arizona run defense. Davis is usually a solid choice at the tight end spot, though San Francisco's quarterback carousel has curtailed his production in comparison to last year's breakout, but no other Niner receiver is a safe bet and Troy Smith's not starter material at quarterback. Sit San Francisco kicker Joe Nedney, expected to miss a second straight game with a swollen right knee, as well. Look for the Cardinals to air it out a lot on Monday, making Fitzgerald and Breaston favorable plays and Anderson a sleeper pick at quarterback, albeit one that carries his share of risk. The state of the Arizona running backs is a cloudy one that often changes from week-to-week, so it's best to explore other avenues if either Wells or Hightower are on your roster. The Cardinals' defense actually has some upside here, as it's been adept at forcing mistakes and the 49ers often struggle to put up points.
For those brave enough to take an interest in this contest, whether it be as a spectator or a wagerer, there seems to be a few trends that could sway the verdict towards the Cardinals' favor. First off, Arizona's offensive woes could be countered by a San Francisco outfit that's been just about as punchless on that side of the ball, and the 49ers' questionable secondary should have its hands full with the Cards' quality cast of receivers. San Francisco also has yet to win a true road game this season (they did beat Denver in a neutral-site situation in London), having gone 0-4 in opposing venues, and Arizona should have some motivation with a prime opportunity to put an end to a frustrating five-game skid. Look for the Cardinals to come up with one more big play on both offense and defense that will be the difference in an otherwise evenly-matched encounter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 20, 49ers 14
11/26 15:27:17 ET