Behind enemy lines: Arizona

The Cardinals are not exactly kings of the road, which is where they meet the 49ers in San Francisco on Sunday. By walloping St. Louis two weekends ago, the Cardinals "improved" to 8-37 on the road over the last 5 1/2 seasons. Still, they are favored to win against the hapless 49ers and have a reasonable chance to be favored again in a visit to a weak Houston team down the road.

The Cardinals' fortunes may hit a skid, though, given the neck injury to rushing leader Marcel Shipp that left him doubtful and an injury to third back James Jackson that caused the team to re-sign veteran Damien Anderson this week as insurance. Rookie J.J. Arrington, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards across the Bay at Cal last year, is expected to be the starting running back on his return home.

The Cardinals have been through the litany of excuses for poor road play - young roster, heavy personnel turnover, instability in coaching regimes, poor ownership.

"We just have to not worry about everything," cornerback David Macklin said. "Not worry about the calls, not worry about the things we can't control, but worry about our play. If we do that, we're going to be taking some strides forward. We just have to fight through it.

"How I do it is, I love this game. I play and this is my job. I play and it's not over for me. Hopefully a lot of other guys on this team feel that way. All we can do is look ahead. It's hard to do, but we have to forget about the past and strive and do the things we need to do to get better."

Of course, the Cardinals haven't been stout guardians of their home turf, either, but if they're ever going to be anything more than a doormat they have to find ways to break through away from home more than eight times every 5 1/2 years.

They've had trouble breaking through at all in San Francisco. The Cardinals haven't beaten the 49ers on their home field since a 16-10 victory in 1978, when they still were known as the St. Louis Cardinals.

True, they hammered the 49ers away from home in an earlier meeting this season, 31-14 in Mexico City on Oct. 2. But that technically was a Cardinals home game. And the 103,467 who viewed it would be the equivalent of about three home crowds at Sun Devil Stadium for the Big Red.

"We have to keep on playing. We have a lot of talented guys in the locker room," said strong safety Adrian Wilson, whose five sacks on blitzes lead the league among defensive backs. "The record really doesn't indicate the amount of talent that is in the locker room. We have a lot of guys here who want to win."

There aren't many better foes than the 49ers against whom to reinforce that kind of talk.

The Big Red actually trailed San Francisco 14-0 slightly more than seven minutes into that Mexico City game before Neil Rackers got his toe warmed up and made six field goals at high elevation, and Josh McCown got his arm warmed up for a then-career-high 385 passing yards in his first start of the year - and the Cardinals' first win after three losses.

But now the season has deteriorated into familiar ho-hum territory for the Cardinals. They best they can do is 8-8 if they win out - and that's a long shot because Indianapolis is among their remaining foes. And now the staff is at risk of seeing this roster poisoned by the Cardinals malaise after Green took great pains to purge it of most of those who had grown accustomed to it under coaches Vince Tobin and Dave McGinnis.

The franchise has produced one winning season since coming to Arizona in 1988 (9-7, 1998) and one .500 mark (8-8, 1994). So for the 16th time in 18 seasons, the Cardinals are likely to finish as losers.

"The biggest thing we need to do is execute," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I am not for moral victories at this point. Let's win. We have been close a lot, but we have to find a way to finish it. That happens to every good team in this league. They are in a close game, but they find themselves on the winning side, and that is what we have to do. That is what we have got to climb to. That is my job. I want to win, and I want to get over the top. It is a big responsibility, and it is my responsibility as the quarterback.

"Coming out hot, putting the pressure on the other team instead of them putting the pressure on us to have to come from behind - I think we are all trying to figure out what we need to do better to win football games. I am not going to point to one thing and say that it is a characterization of this football team. I think we do too many good things, but we are not consistent enough doing it. I see strides, and I think the last few weeks we have played better football. It just is not enough to get us over the top."

-- Rackers offered no excuses when his team-record and league-leading streak of 31 successive successful field-goal attempts ended last weekend.

"I missed the kick," Rackers said. "I just pulled it a little bit."

Rackers remains the team's best hope to make the Pro Bowl, a testament not only to the high-quality season that Rackers is having but also to the low-quality production overall by a team that was picked to win the NFC West.

--- Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is really hoping he doesn't receive a special package in the mail this week. It would be no Christmas present.

Boldin came perilously close to ripping the officiating crew headed by referee Tom White in the wake of the team's loss to Jacksonville last weekend. Boldin believes the Cardinals are not getting calls on the field. In his frustration, Boldin received two 15-yard penalties.

Goaded by reporters early this week to discuss it, Boldin backed off.

"No, I still think I can get that FedEx during the week, so I'll chill out on that. I'm not an idiot. I'm going to keep my entire check."

The Cardinals are the fourth most penalized team in the NFL, leading coach Dennis Green to go one step beyond Boldin in commentary about the refs.

"I think it's pretty obvious to anybody that watches television and hears the commentators," Green said regarding how the calls go.

For the record, last Sunday the Cardinals received 11 penalties - including the two in frustration by Boldin - but Jacksonville also received 11 penalties.

"Hopefully, something happens that in the last five games we won't have any. That would be the idea," Green said.

Boldin hardly was as frustrated in the October meeting against the 49ers, when he had game-high totals of eight receptions for 116 yards.

--- Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hasn't opened the first two seasons of his pro career in quite as prolific a fashion as Boldin did, but Fitzgerald is coming off three straight 100-yard games, needs only another yard to reach 1,000 for the season, and leads the league in catches of 20 yards or longer (19).

--- Boy, it looks as if the Cardinals are going to have it all - retractable roof, retractable field, retractable offense ...

They were, to borrow from another type of bird, crowing last week about the installation of two giant, state-of-the-art video boards in their new stadium in Glendale, Ariz., where they begin playing next season.

The board at the south end of the field is 96 feet by 27 feet - covering more area than the typical Cardinals drive has this year. Work is nearly complete on it. At the north end, installation is complete on a board that measures 40 feet by 22 1/2 feet.

Now all the Cardinals need is a way to consistently light them up. After scoring 17 points in a loss to Jacksonville, the Cardinals have scored more than 20 points only twice in 11 games. But one of those two was the first meeting this season with the 49ers.

Unless the team finds ways to light it up next year, fans will come once to look at the new stadium, be impressed by the dazzling light display, lament that the Cardinals don't do enough to test its capability, and never come back. And the Cardinals soon will be back to the home crowds of 35,000 or so they now draw routinely at Sun Devil Stadium.

--- The Cardinals suddenly have rediscovered the tight end, a position that has largely been missing in action for about a decade. TEs Adam Bergen and Eric Edwards have caught nine passes for 142 yards and one touchdown in the past three games. They have emerged largely because RT Oliver Ross has returned to good health and now can handle his blocking responsibilities as the team anticipated he would when it signed him as a free agent last winter. The tight ends no longer are needed for maximum protection, giving the young pair (Edwards is in his second year, Bergen is a rookie) a chance to spread their wings, and in turn giving Warner another target to complement the prolific wideout pair of Fitzgerald and Boldin.


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