Cards-49ers battle for top of NFC West

The first "new rivalry" in the realigned NFL may be ready to hatch. While everyone wanted to hold on to some of the great NFL rivalries like Bears-Packers or Cowboys-Redskins when the league realigned this year, it was thought that as the season(s) progressed, new rivalries would develop.

Week 8 presents a good example of a new rivalry -- the Cardinals and the 49ers.  That's the NFC West tied-for-first Cardinals and 49ers.

The teams have played 21 times (the 49ers lead 12-9), but this is the first meeting as division rivals.  And it's a tiebreaker.  Barring a tie (and the Cards came within 3:10 of one last week), one of the 4-2 teams will sit exclusively in first place in the NFC West by Sunday night.

The Cards are getting to like their new division.

"To be in first place six games into the season is great," says Arizona quarterback JAKE PLUMMER.  "When those 16 games are done, that's where I want to be."

You speak for everyone in the NFL, Jake.  Even for those on the losing side of the ledger, there's still hope.

Just look at 14 of the past 15 seasons.  In that span, at least one team with three or fewer wins through seven games made it to the playoffs.  Last year, it was the 3-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who finished 9-7 and earned a wild card berth.  

"Any team can go out there and win on any Sunday," says 49ers guard RON STONE.

Like this Sunday, when Stone's 49ers take on the visiting Cards.

Arizona is off to its best start since 1988, its first year in the state.  It does not win spectacularly.  After losing its opener, it has won four of its past five games, none by more than 14 points. 

"A ‘W' is a ‘W,'" says Cards center MIKE GRUTTADAURIA.  "But it sure would be nice to win one pretty."

The Cards – and the Niners – are opportunistic teams.  They are tied with Philadelphia and Kansas City for the second-best takeaway/giveaway margin (+6) in the NFL behind Green Bay's +12.

And their quarterbacks – Arizona's Plummer and San Francisco's JEFF GARCIA -- are confident, gutsy leaders who can compete in an air show, or long-drive you to death.  They rank in the top six in the NFC in third-down passing – Garcia with the top 118.0 rating, and Plummer No. 6 with an 83.5 mark.

Rushers?  Receivers?  The teams stack up evenly here, too.

The clubs' main backs are out of the same mold – compact, quick and punishing.  The Niners' GARRISON HEARST (a former Cardinal) – 5-11, 215 – is the conference's ninth-ranked rusher (386 yards).  The Cardinals' THOMAS JONES – 5-10, 220 – is No. 11 with 378 yards. 

Or the game could turn into a battle of speed-merchant wideouts.  San Francisco's TERRELL OWENS is tied for the second-most TD catches in the NFC (4), while Arizona's DAVID BOSTON has the second-best average (16.6) of the conference's top 10 receivers.  

So who knows what will swing this first-place battle?

One thing Jake Plummer does know – it is a BIG game.

"This week is going to be one of the biggest games at this point in the season that's ever been played since the Cardinals have been here in Arizona," the quarterback says.

Welcome to a new rivalry.


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