KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Pacific
RECORDS: 49ers 6-8, second place in NFC West; Cardinals 4-10, fourth place in NFC West
SITE: Monster Park in San Francisco
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Jesse Palmer, Chris Myers
2006 NFL RANKINGS: Cardinals: offense 26th (30th rush, 10th pass); defense 30th (16th rush, 30th pass). 49ers: offense 24th (4th rush, 28th pass); defense 26th (18th rush, 27th pass)
SERIES HISTORY: 31st meeting. The 49ers lead the series that dates to 1951, 17-13, but the Cardinals have won three in a row, including the 2006 season opener, in which the Big Red scored the first three times it has had the ball and then held on for a 34-27 victory. The Cardinals also swept the 2005 series, their first divisional season sweep since 2002 realignment. In their Sept. 10 win in Glendale, Ariz., QB Kurt Warner passed for 301 yards and three touchdowns. The last time the Cards came to the Bay Area, Dec. 4, 2005, they won 17-10 as Warner passed for 354 yards and a game-winning 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to WR Anquan Boldin. The most historic meeting between these teams was in 1988. Trailing 23-0 in the second half, the Cardinals rallied for a 24-23 win on Nov. 6 under coach Gene Stallings during the Big Red's initial season in Arizona.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Knowing the 49ers are going to continually feed the ball to RB Frank Gore, the Cardinals have to give their own running game a chance to level time of possession on the road. RB Edgerrin James has benefited from stronger line play in front of him the past month, and the more successful he is the better the Cardinals will be able to attack the 49ers' secondary. CBs Shawntae Spencer and Walt Harris are strong, but there isn't much depth so expect Arizona to exploit the weakness with plenty of multiple receiver looks. The Cardinals' secondary is even more vulnerable, but the 49ers are never quite sure what they will get out of QB Alex Smith, who now will be without top downfield threat Antonio Bryant, who was handed a four-game suspension by the NFL earlier this week. If Smith can take advantage when the Cardinals stack the box against Gore, the 49ers will be in good shape. If not, this is a rare winnable road game for Arizona.
FAST FACTS: Cardinals -- QB Matt Leinart has set a franchise rookie record with 2,385 passing yards. ... WR Larry Fitzgerald has averaged 121.3 receiving yards in the past three meetings. 49ers -- Gore needs 80 rushing yards to break Garrison Hearst's single-season franchise record of 1,570 set in 1998. ... DE Bryant Young has 8.5 sacks in the past nine games against the Cardinals.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- Players on injured reserve with two games to go, fewer than half the Cardinals' league-leading total on IR in 2005. 8 -- 100-yard rushing games by Gore so far in 2006, already a franchise record. 2 -- Where the 49ers rank in the league in rushing yards per attempt. The 49ers' 5.0 average is second to only the Falcons' 5.6-yard average.
QUOTES TO NOTE
--- "I told him, 'Look, if you make it, I'm there. I'm sitting right next to you. We're drinking Mai Tais on the way over.'" -- Cardinals FS Robert Griffith, regarding SS Adrian Wilson's selection to his first Pro Bowl.
--- "The perception of themselves, the identity that they carry, and the perception of the opponents is very important. They have to deal six months in the off-season with that same thing. If they're feeling good about themselves and have confidence in the direction of this thing, that will make us all better. I don't believe that a few spots in the draft has as much to do with the progress we make as finishing strong." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the momentum that can carry over to next season from finishing this year strong.
49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers struggle with teams that can put more than two good receivers on the field at the same time. They offset some of those problems in their Nov. 26 game against the Seahawks by playing most of the game with five defensive backs. They might be tempted to do the same thing Sunday against the Cardinals, who have a strong stable of receivers. The 49ers have two solid starting cornerbacks in Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer, but they have some depth issues after that. Rookie Marcus Hudson is likely to see some time in coverage, as is backup safety Mike Adams. One key for the 49ers will be to get pressure on Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, who is not nimble in the pocket. But Leinart is very good at getting the ball out of his hands. He has been sacked just 20 times while attempting 364 passes this season. The 49ers' game plan on offense is simple. They will put the ball in the hands of Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore. The Cardinals will undoubtedly crowd the box and devote eight defenders to stop Gore. That is where quarterback Alex Smith comes in. If Smith is able to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves against single coverage, the 49ers' offense could have a big day. If not, they will struggle. Smith and Gore worked perfectly together in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' 24-14 victory over the Seahawks, a victory that kept the 49ers in the playoff race.
CARDINALS GAME PLAN: The Cardinals have been lousy on the road, including a 22-9 pummeling across the San Francisco Bay at lowly Oakland, and seemed to throw in the towel late in last weekend's loss to Denver in their home finale. So keeping their minds afloat is the greatest challenge for the coaching staff in this one -- a staff that may be in its final two gamers and might be looking ahead to the next stop. The team has won three out of five, though, and should keep feeding RB Edgerrin James, who restored the threat of the run and gave the team good balance in those wins. The receivers, especially Anquan Boldin, always have big numbers vs. the 49ers and should fare well again if James can maintain the rushing threat. Defensively, there's a lot to gain and little to lose by turning up the heat with blitzes, including some run blitzes to slow Pro Bowl RB Frank Gore. The Cardinals blitz effectively with SS Adrian Wilson and OLB Karlos Dansby.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- Cardinals WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, who have combined for 136 catches, 1,847 yards and eight TDs, vs. 49ers CBs Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer, who have been very efficient at not allowing the big play this season. Specifically, watch the matchup between Boldin, a 2007 Pro Bowl starter, and Harris, a 2007 Pro Bowl first alternate. Boldin caught a 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to win the game on the Cardinals last visit to San Francisco. He has four 100-yard games in his past five meetings vs. the 49ers, and 41 catches for 566 yards (113.2 per game) and four touchdowns in those five games. Harris has been one of the best free agent acquisitions in the NFL, leading the team with a career-high six interceptions.
--- Cardinals RT Reggie Wells, who has started all 14 games this season, vs. 49ers DE Bryant Young, who is having another solid season as he moves from end to tackle on passing downs.
--- Cardinals MLB Gerald Hayes, the team's leading tackler, vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore, a Pro Bowl starter who is adept at making the first person miss on his way to big gains.
--- Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson, a 2007 Pro Bowl starter who is adept at sneaking up close to the line of scrimmage on blitzes, vs. 49ers C Tony Wragge, making his first career start and has the responsibility of setting up the 49ers' pass protection. Also watch for Wilson against Gore, another 2007 Pro Bowl starter.Wilson is the only player in the NFC with 4.0 sacks and four interceptions. He has two 99-yard TDs this year, on a fumble and an interception, and is the only player in NFL history with two defensive TDs of 99-plus yards in a season. He has a whopping five forced fumbles in nine games vs. the 49ers. Gore leads the NFC and ranks third in the NFL with 1,491 rushing yards, and he leads the NFL with 14 rushes of 20 or more yards. But he also has lost six fumbles this season.
LB Derek Smith (left hamstring) returned to practice this week and is expected to be available to start Sunday's game, though he was listed as questionable. Smith has missed two games with the strain. TE Eric Johnson (left knee) has missed three games with an MCL sprain but returned to practice and is likely to return to limited action Sunday as Vernon Davis' backup. OT Adam Snyder (right ankle/knee) returned to practice this week and might be available to split duty at RT with starter Kwame Harris. Snyder has missed two games with the injuries.
NT Kendrick Clancy (sprained ankle), the starter, is back after missing a couple of games and it shows. Rookie Gabe Watson started in Clancy's place in wins at St. Louis and over Seattle, but coaches are down on his excessive weight and lack of stamina. Chris Cooper comes off the bench to essentially split time with Watson. MLB Gerald Hayes (ribs), the starter, did not practice Wednesday. Although listed questionable, he is likely to play Sunday. Seldom used Monty Beisel is the backup if necessary. DE Bertrand Berry, the right-side starter and a 2004 Pro Bowler, went on Injured Reserve in November (surgery, torn triceps). Berry was the team's best pass-rushing threat with six sacks and one of its leaders on the field and in the locker room. This is a big loss as the team attempts to reverse its miserable fortunes. Antonio Smith has moved into the lineup with backup help from Calvin Pace, who has been moved back to DE, where he backed Berry for two years. Pace was moved to OLB during training camp, started early in the season, and was beginning to thrive at the new position. Chike Okeafor, the left-side starting end, had stepped up to soften the loss of Berry's pass rushing until Okeafor suffered a calf injury. He is expected to be in the lineup at San Francisco. Depth across the line is now an issue, though. RB Marcel Shipp (ribs), the backup whose role is third-down and goal-line, should be ready Sunday. As insurance, the team brought up Diamond Ferri from the practice squad. Starter Edgerrin James certainly is capable of being an every-down back, though, so the greatest loss here is quality depth. Shipp practiced Wednesday. CB Eric Green (ill) and LT Leonard Davis (family matter) were excused Wednesday. Both are expected to play Sunday.
Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Cardinals
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