Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
The San Francisco 49ers are atop the NFC West, but the Arizona Cardinals can change that on Monday Night Football. Will the 49ers improve to 6-2 on the season on primetime?
Prior to the 2010 season, the NFL tried mightily to get the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals to become rivals. The NFC West wasn't exactly the marquee division in the league, and a big rivalry was something the league was looking for. After multiple successful, engaging games on Monday Night Football, the league got their wish, and players like Vernon Davis and Darnell Dockett were constantly engaged in pre-game Twitter wars.
Fast forward to 2012, and the rivalry has stagnated in the short amount of time. All it took was for one team (the 49ers) to become really good, and the focus is back off of the NFC West, and back on rivalries against teams like the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants.
Still, these two teams always bring it in primetime, and a divisional matchup that carries a surprising amount of significance is on the books. San Francisco is out in front, but there are three winning teams in the NFC West at this point, and the lead is on the line here in Week 8.
Meet the Cardinals
Tied with the Seattle Seahawks at 4-3, the Cardinals can tie for the lead in the NFC West with a win over San Francisco. Quarterback John Skelton was thrust back into the starting role, and is 6-0 at home in his carer as a starter. The last time he took on the 49ers, Skelton passed for 282 yards and three touchdowns, with a 106.5 quarterback rating.
Still, the passing game isn't how the Cardinals have been picking up their wins of late. Guys like LaRod Stephens-Howling and William Powell have been picking up the slack on the ground, with the former picking up a career-high 104 yards last week, and Powell picking up a career-high 70 yards in Arizona's last home game.
Cornerpack Patrick Peterson has interceptions in two of his past three games. San Francisco doesn't turn the ball over often, but it happens more against the Cardinals than most other teams, whether it be via fumble or interception.
Meet the 49ers
San Francisco got its NFC West slate started off with a win over Seattle on Thursday Night Football, and head coach Jim Harbaugh has had plenty of time to gameplan for the Cardinals on Monday night. They're one loss away from equaling their loss total from a season ago, but the team still looks improved in many key areas. The biggest area they've looked improved? The offense.
Quarterback Alex Smith is throwing for more yardage this time around, though he's also thrown more interceptions, matching his 2011 total of five in just seven games. Still, this increased productivity has led to a more dynamic attack, one in which the 49ers' receivers actually look to be a threat as opposed to a distraction to help out the running game.
One area where San Francisco has regressed is special teams. Their coverage units rank among the bottom teams in the league, a far cry from the top-three unit they've boasted over the past couple seasons. Punter Andy Lee will have his hands full trying to keep the ball out of Peterson's hands.
Local Takes: Cardinals
Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds takes particular note of linebacker Daryl Washington, who has produced some strong sack numbers this season. He'll be up against one of the best offensive lines in football on Monday.
According to Pro Football Focus, in seven games, he has only rushed the passer 73 times. he has sacked the quarterback six times, hit him three times and hurried him five times. That is 14 total pressures in 73 attempts, a rate of 19.2 percent. That is super efficient.
Local Takes: 49ers
Dylan DeSimone of Niners Nation says that the San Francisco defensive line presents a mismatch against the Arizona offensive line.
The first thing you're likely to notice about the Cardinals is their porous offensive line. It is the league's bottom-ranked unit, and has been the teams Achilles this season. Arizona's offensive line has allowed 35 sacks and 53 QB hits, which are both league-highs.
In the past four games, in which they've gone 1-3, the offensive line has allowed 29 sacks. Over the course of the season, Cards two starting offensive tackles have allowed 22 of 35 total sacks this season.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Roman: Vernon is his vote for the best TE in the NFL. Evolved into a great leader. Great team attitude #49ers— NinersNation (@NinersNation) October 26, 2012
Cards/Niners officially a sellout. That makes 70 straight. Game will be televised locally on ESPN and Ch 3.— Revenge of the Birds (@revengeofbirds) October 26, 2012
@Eric_Branch - 49ers beat writer
What will Jim Harbaugh do this week to further convince us all that he is insane? The spread favors the 49ers by four points. That seems awfully generous, considering John Skelton is the Cardinals' quarterback, and he has five surgically removed goiters trying to keep Aldon Smith from tearing his arms off. Then again, Skelton threw three touchdown passes in a 21-19 over the Niners last December.
The pick: 17-10, 49ers
The 49ers opened as 4-point favorites, but can be found as 8-point favorites on some boards, via OddsShark.com.
The Cardinals have a tough game against the Green Bay Packers on the road next week, while the 49ers will have a bye week, and then continue their NFC West games with a tilt against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park the following week.