Joe Nedney is a serviceable kicker, but he's not quite at the same level as Neil Rackers. After a rough start to the season, Rackers has rebounded nicely and will hopefully round everything out to finish with a good season. While his Pro Bowl appearance seems like it happened 100 years ago, he's still better than Nedney, so the edge goes to the Cardinals. Andy Lee and Scott Player are basically the same guy. Both have fairly powerful legs, decent hang time, and inconsistent directional punting skills.
In the return game, J.J. Arrington and Troy Walters continue to solidify their status of being solidly average. For the 49ers, the three-headed beast of Brandon Williams, back-up tailback Maurice Hicks, and #2 wide receiver Arnaz Battle wish they could attain the status Walters and Arrington possess. At least Arrington had a kick return for a score earlier this year, so there's a threat that he might take one all the way.
In a game that is likely to feature lots of offense and scoring, field position shouldn't be particularly relevant. The difference should come down to who has the ball last and how confident that team is in their place kicker.
So, overall, the edge on special teams goes to Rackers and the Cardinals.
On offense, the Cardinals need to stick to what they do best. They need to throw the ball as much as possible to their talented wideouts Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson (who really should be more of a factor in this game). After Shawntae Spencer and Walt Harris, the 49ers run out of cornerback talent. Matt Leinart needs to take advantage of the mismatch that the Cardinals receivers represent over the 49ers secondary and attack the weaknesses he sees when he comes to the line.
San Francisco has had a lackluster pass rush all season and Arizona seems to be finding its stride in pass protection. Leonard Davis needs to lock down on Bryant Young and Edgerrin James needs to spy Brandon Moore (San Francisco's only blitz threat, with seven sacks). If Edge and Davis are able to win more of those battles than they lose, Leinart should have plenty of time to sling the ball all over the field.
Edge should have a successful day carrying the football. While he may not top 100 yards with the success Leinart is likely to have in the passing game, he will get his yards, get his stats, and become the first Cardinal to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 1998. San Francisco's front seven is still young, raw, and doesn't win as many battles at the point of attack as they should. Their linebackers are especially weak and Arizona's rejuvenated offensive line should be able to push the front seven off the ball, allowing James to get to the second level.
Bottom line: The Cardinals scored 34 points on this defense before the secondary got ravaged with injuries, before the offensive line came together, and back when Kurt Warner was the starting quarterback. Arguably, the 49ers defense could've gotten better over the course of the season (and they do seem to play better at home, just not against the Packers), but ultimately this is still a match-up of a potent offense versus an undermanned defense.
On defense, Arizona needs to stop three things: Frank Gore, Frank Gore, and Frank Gore. No one has seemed to be able to do that for the past two months, but Gore is the key to everything they do on offense. With Kendrick Clancy and Darnell Dockett focused on clogging the middle, Chike Okeafor and Antonio Smith focused on maintaining their lanes, Gerald Hayes, Orlando Huff, and Karlos Dansby obsessed with finding Gore and wrapping him up, and Adrian Wilson playing in the box as an extra defender, the Cardinals really should be able to contain Gore. But they probably won't.
San Francisco's line is simply playing too well in the running game, they have too much confidence, and run defense, in addition to fundamentals, is largely about intensity. The Cardinals have nothing to play for. The 49ers have something to fight for. The will to run the ball and run the ball successfully will overcome.
Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle won't have huge days against Antrel Rolle and David Macklin. There's just too much of a talent disparity there. However, Robert Griffith needs to cover the deep area of the field and not get sucked in when the 49ers use play action to set up the long ball. Rolle and Macklin need to stay focused, not commit any stupid penalties, and most definitely not suffer from any mental lapses. That leads to big plays and long touchdowns. And the cornerback tandem has given up too many of those already this year.
In addition to stopping Gore, the defense just needs to keep plays in front of them. The 49ers offense thrives on occasionally striking for a quick score, a long pass, or a huge gain by Gore. Aside from that, they work a lot of "three yards and a cloud of dust" into their game plan. No lapses, no big plays, make the 49ers work for every yard they gain. They're a young team. They've proven they can be physically dominant. The Cardinals need to make them prove they have the mental stamina to sustain drives.
This is going to be a high scoring game.
Gore will get his 130 yards. And probably score once or twice. Alex Smith will continue to be consistent and unspectacular. If he's smart (and he did get his Bachelor's degree in only two years), he'll work the short-to-intermediate middle of the field with tight end Vernon Davis. Davis is primed for a breakout game after the 49ers drafted him 6th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. This could be the game if Smith is able to take advantage of the gaping hole in the middle of Arizona's defense.
Edge will do well and should score, but he may not gain 100 yards. Also, with San Francisco's lack of a pass rush and Arizona's improved pass blocking, this could be the game that Edge ends up being a factor in the passing game. After all, we've been saying all season that coach Green needs to find a way to get James more quality touches instead of just touches period.
Leinart should go off. As well as Gore is going to do for the 49ers, Leinart will do better for the Cardinals. This will be his coming out party. Boldin, Fitzgerald, and Johnson should all do well.
Ultimately, it will come down to who makes the most mistakes on defense, who makes the most big plays on offense, and who turns the ball over more. In a game that will probably be decided by the last team with the ball, the team that has more possessions in the game will be the victor. That sounds pretty simple, but observation and execution are two entirely different animals.
The 49ers want it more. Pure and simple. Arizona has been trying to get the season over with since the bye (maybe even before then). San Francisco still has an outside shot to win the NFC West. And they're at home, where they've played considerably better over the past two seasons.
With a game this close, it's intangibles and turnovers. San Francisco wins on both counts. And wins the game.
San Francisco 31, Arizona 27.