Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part III

Our experts, Craig Massei of NinersDigest and Brad Wilbricht of AZRedReport, go Behind Enemy Lines to take a closer look at Sunday's battle of NFC West rivals between the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park. Let's conclude this exclusive three-part series with the game's key matchups, why each team will win and why each will lose, and final predictions from Craig and Brad.


Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. 49ers cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown
Fitzgerald is the one player that can hurt the 49ers more than any other, and he presents a matchup problem for San Francisco on the edges with his size and ability to win battles with the ball in the air. The Niners had some success in the past getting physical with Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage with aggressive cornerback Nate Clements, who no longer is with the team. While San Francisco certainly will try to bump the five-time Pro Bowler at the line, the Niners will rely more on the coverage technique of their two starting cornerbacks to contain Fitzgerald and not allow him to become a deciding factor in the game. The 49ers don't like to mess with the structure of their aggressive defense to try to shut down any one particular player, so Fitzgerald likely will be across from Rogers or Brown whenever he lines up on the edge of an Arizona formation.

Cardinals LT Levi Brown vs. 49ers RE Justin Smith
This could be a very bad matchup for Brown and the Cardinals. Brown has struggled mightily since moving to left tackle and this season has arguably been his worst since entering the professional ranks. Brown lacks the quickness and agility to keep Smith out of the Cardinals' backfield, which will cause problems for QB John Skelton, who's expected to make his third consecutive start in place of the injured Kevin Kolb. Arizona would be smart to keep a tight end on Brown's side to help out with Smith but that will limit the team's options downfield in the passing game. For better or for worse, expect Brown to be lined up one-on-one against Smith plenty of times throughout the game, which will more than likely end up on the worse end for the Cardinals.


49ers LG Mike Iupati vs. Cardinals DE Calais Campbell: Niners left tackle Joe Staley also will spend time grappling with Campbell when the big defensive end attempts to get around the edge on passing downs, but Iupati likely will be locked in on Campbell on a down-to-down matchup and will be seeking him out on most running plays. This presents an intriguing matchup of power, size and strength, and Iupati hasn't lost many of those this season while establishing himself as one of the league's top up-and-coming young guards. Iupati can be dominant in the run game, but he can have trouble in pass protection if he doesn't gain leverage early at the line of scrimmage. Campbell leads the Cardinals with five sacks and will get his opportunities head-up against Iupati in San Francisco's pass-blocking schemes.

49ers RBs Frank Gore/Kendall Hunter vs. Cardinals LB Daryl Washington
Regardless of who starts at running back for San Francisco, one of the Cards' top priorities will be stopping the run. Yes, QB Alex Smith has been solid this year, but Arizona would rather put the ball in his hands and force him to move the ball down the field. It appears Gore will play but the Cardinals might see a more healthy dose of Hunter with Gore nicked up. The diverse tandem will pose as quite a challenge for Arizona and Washington will be the Cards' primary defender to keep them in check. Washington has tremendous sideline-to-sideline speed and is quickly becoming the heart of Arizona's defense. Washington can certainly hold his own against Gore, Hunter and the rest of the 49ers' running game but would benefit from some help.

… they stick to the basic formula of steady offense, relentless defense and terrific special teams that has led them to an 8-1 start. The 49ers have followed this script closely during their seven-game winning streak and it has been their blueprint for consistent success. San Francisco has been winning as a complete team this season, with no one unit really playing a bigger part than the two others. If the 49ers win the battle in at least two of these areas as they have in most every game this season, Arizona will be victim No. 9 and the winning streak will stretch to eight in a row.

... the 49ers come out flat and let the Cardinals hang around and gain momentum. Arizona is not as bad as its record shows, but also isn't a complete football team at this point. The Cards have some ability and will need another big day from Skelton and WR Larry Fitzgerald as well as Beanie Wells on the ground. The defense will also need to do its part but the Cards' offense will be the key against a stout San Francisco defensive unit. A big play or two on special teams – namely Patrick Peterson – would also help Arizona's cause.

... they suffer a letdown following one of their biggest regular-season victories of the past decade. The 49ers seem due for some kind of letdown, and that could level the playing field in a hurry, particularly if the Cardinals can jump out to an early lead and keep on the pressure. If the 49ers hurt themselves with mistakes, lose a few turnovers, bog down on offense and continue to get field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone, that could keep Arizona in the game and give the Cards an opportunity to pull off the upset at the finish.

... San Francisco takes control of the game early and plays to its potential without a letdown. The 49ers can probably be considered a superior team in all facets of the game, and while playing on their home turf, they should be in line for the win. It's hard to imagine the Cards' offense lighting it up in San Francisco, so they'll need to play a mistake-free game and be the beneficiary of mistakes from quarterback Alex Smith and the 49ers' offense to have a chance at pulling the upset.


Craig Massei: The Cardinals could be the best 3-6 team in the NFL, not that any backhanded praise will do them any good in this game. But they're probably closer to being a 5-4 team, which means they can be a dangerous opponent, as they displayed last week in Philadelphia. As Brad points out below, the intensity ratchets up a notch in this game, and these are divisional rivals that clearly don't like each other. That intangible usually works in favor of the underdog. But it also gives the 49ers a different kind of motivation than they've had in recent games, and their focus won't be impaired in a game most observers expect them to win. The Cardinals are good enough to keep up with the 49ers for a while, but they'll ultimately get worn down by a San Francisco team that is eager to take care of business within the NFC West like it has during eight consecutive games outside the division.

Brad Wilbricht: The Cardinals have managed to build some confidence riding a two-game winning streak, which included an upset win in Philadelphia last week. The Cards won't be intimidated on the road again and coach Ken Whisenhunt's teams have historically thrived in the underdog role – a role they'll play again this weekend in San Francisco. That said, the 49ers hold too many advantages to let this one slip away on their home field. Because of the intensity a division rivalry brings, it could be close for a while, but San Francisco should eventually pull away and prevail in the end.

Craig Massei is the publisher of

Brad Wilbricht is the publisher of

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