The Cardinals need to get off to a good start if they're going to be a playoff team. For the first time since moving to Arizona in 1988, the team plays two of its first three and four of its first six at home. The Cardinals have been doomed by slow starts during their history in Arizona. Only three times have they had a winning record after six games. And with a poor track record, winning early is needed to build confidence.
"There's no question in my mind that for us to be the team we want to be, we have to play well early and convince ourselves of how good we are," said quarterback Kurt Warner.
Running back Edgerrin James often seems bemused when people bring up the team's losing history. To him, getting off to a fast start is no more important to the Cardinals than it is to other teams. Playing at home or away, to James it doesn't matter.
"They sent this team to Mexico last year," he said. "If this is where we're at, this is where we're going to play well at." It's doubtful the Cardinals gained much confidence with their victory last week over the 49ers, even though it was their first win on opening day since 1999.
They couldn't put the 49ers away, despite leading 21-7 in the first quarter. Last year, the Cardinals scored a total of 27 points in the first quarter, all by field goals. Last Sunday, the running game was inconsistent and the defense gave up too many big plays, problems that were apparent last year.
"If you got a team down, you got to put your foot on their neck and kill them," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "You can't let them hang around because teams in the NFL are too talented. Luckily they just ran out of time today. Otherwise it would have been a whole different situation in this locker room."
The Cardinals' run defense remains suspect. The 49ers' Frank Gore gained 87 yards on 16 carries last week, and things will be tougher this Sunday in Seattle.
Last year, Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander gained 313 yards and scored six touchdowns in two games against the Cardinals. The Cardinals will have to play much better to survive against the Seahawks.
"I didn't think we played very well defensively," Green said. "I don't think you could find one player on defense that said so."
The Edgerrin James era began last Sunday when the running back averaging 2.8 yards a carry. James carried 26 times for 73 yards, but grew more effective as the game went on. It was an indication that the offensive line hasn't developed into a solid unit yet. James didn't find much room to run, but the Cardinals were able to stick with it because they had the lead.
Receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 133 yards, but he also dropped two passes. Three different receivers caught touchdowns passes, an indication of the diversity of the weapons quarterback Kurt Warner has at his disposal.
"Find the guy with the best matchup up and get him the ball," Warner said of the team's philosophy."
--WR Larry Fitzgerald continues to be Kurt Warner's favorite target. He caught nine passes for 133 yards last Sunday.
--TE Leonard Pope, a rookie, didn't play as much as expected last week. Tight end Adam Bergen saw more action, especially in passing situations and caught a touchdown pass.
--WR Bryant Johnson could develop into the club's deep threat. He made a handful of big plays last week, mostly on deeper crossing routes.
--CB David Macklin was replaced after the first series by Eric Green. Macklin dropped an interception and missed a tackle on that opening series.
--CB Eric Green likely will become the starter at right cornerback, replacing David Macklin, who didn't play well early against the 49ers.
--OT Oliver Ross likely will miss at least one more game because of a knee suffered in training camp. Chris Liwienski, who joined the Cardinals a week before the season started, has replaced Ross. Liwienski played for Cardinals coach Dennis Green in Minnesota, so he knows the system.
--OLB Karlos Dansby is expected to begin practice soon after missing all of the preseason and the first game because of a toe injury. His absence has been a source of consternation for coaches and the front office, who think he needs to learn to play through some pain.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
It was an odd day for the Rams, as they opened the season with an 18-10 victory over the Broncos. It was defense and special teams that won the game for the Rams, while the offense failed to score a touchdown (the first unit never scored a touchdown in the preseason), coming up with only nine points in four trips to the red zone. They were also credited with a red-zone failure at the end of the game when there were three kneeldowns after reaching the Denver 6-yard line.
With a road trip to division-rival San Francisco this week, the Rams know they can't rest on their laurels. After all, they lost to the 49ers twice last season.
"We still have a long way to go," said quarterback Marc Bulger. "We've been working on it, I promise you. We'll get there."
Bulger completed just 1 of 7 passes in the red zone, and on 14 plays in the first four trips to the red zone, they totaled just 21 yards. "I couldn't be more proud of our football team," coach Scott Linehan said. "There are no such things as style points in winning and sometimes we get caught up in that. I think these were some pretty interesting style points in how we won today, with the way our defense came out and pretty much dominated the game.
"When they had to dig down, they stopped them and got turnovers and gave us great field position. Offensively, we didn't take that good of an advantage of it, but we are going to figure it out. It is one of those things that you can make too big of a point of it. We probably worked our red-zone offense five times as much as I normally would this week. That is not what today is all about, today is about this new team, players, and staff alike and support people that work for the team are off to a great start."
In the first half, the Rams ran 32 plays, with 25 coming in Denver territory. At one point, they ran 22 consecutive plays in Broncos territory. Yet, they led by just 12-7 at halftime.
"We just need to relax a little bit down there (in the red zone)," Linehan said. "We really put a lot of emphasis on it, and I think there's a little bit of trying too hard. I take total accountability for it. I'm calling the plays down there, and I've got to do a better job for the offense."
When the Rams face the 49ers, it will be with Bulger again being careful with the football. That's a switch from the philosophy of former coach Mike Martz. Against Denver, Bulger completed 18 of 34 passes for 217 yards, but he had no interceptions, throwing the ball away at times, rather than trying to force things.
"I almost feel like I'm playing in a different division," Bulger said. "Growing up I always referred to Steelers games and this game reminded me of that -- field position, taking care of the ball and punting. I'm used to winging before. You know if it didn't work today we might be sitting here saying something different. I like it. If we can protect the ball and our defense can keep making huge plays, we'll be in good shape. There's a different way we're going to approach the offense. It's going to be careful, safe, err on the side of caution and hopefully it will work."
The Rams' defense forced five turnovers, sacked Denver quarterback Jake Plummer four times, and kicker Jeff Wilkins supplied all of the scoring with six field goals in an 18-10 victory over the Broncos. The new-look defense under coordinator Jim Haslett held the Broncos to 259 yards and forced Plummer into a 26.3 passer rating.
Defensive end Leonard Little had two sacks and a forced fumble, while the newcomers on defense made a difference. First-round pick Tye Hill and free-agent additions Fakhir Brown and Corey Chavous had interceptions. Brown had his on Denver's final offensive play of the game, on a pass that was deflected by free-agent addition Will Witherspoon. Brown also had a sack. Witherspoon forced a fumble and had nine tackles, while another free-agent addition, La'Roi Glover, had five.
--C Andy McCollum suffered an injury to his left knee that was believed to be serious and could knock him out for the rest of the season. McCollum has started 97 consecutive games for the Rams.
--C Larry Turner replaced Andy McCollum after he suffered a knee injury against the Broncos.
--NT Jimmy Kennedy broke a bone in his right hand in the first quarter, but returned to play with a cast. At one point, he had the cast replaced with a shorter one. Kennedy alternated possessions with Jason Fisk.
--NT Jason Fisk alternated possessions with Jimmy Kennedy after Kennedy began playing with a cast to protect a broken bone in his hand.
--PK Jeff Wilkins had six field goals, setting a club record and tied for second most in NFL history. The 18 points Wilkins scored gives him 1,013 points with the Rams. He is the first player in club history to surpass the 1,000-point barrier.
--CB Jerametrius Butler was surprisingly inactive for the game against Denver. Butler is the team's fourth cornerback, but Ron Bartell was considered more valuable because he can play cornerback or safety and is also on special teams.
--DB Ron Bartell was active for the game against Denver instead of Jerametrius Butler, even though Butler is considered the better cornerback. However, Bartell worked at both corner and safety in training camp, and also plays special teams.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Quarterback Alex Smith looked better in the 49ers' season-opening loss than at any point in his rookie season. Smith completed 23 of 40 passes for 288 yards -- all career-highs -- and a touchdown. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft looked the part, though the 49ers head into Sunday's game against the Rams carrying an opening-week loss to the Cardinals.
When asked how important it was for Smith to play well to open the season, 49ers coach Mike Nolan answered, "Now that it's over, it's not as important as (this) week. But it's important, not just for Alex but for the team. They look at him and see he can move the ball and that he's getting better all the time."
Smith had seven starts as a rookie and struggled mightily. He threw 11 interceptions with just one touchdown and compiled a lowly passer rating of 40.8. "I think I've come a long way," said Smith, who compiled a career-best 88.3 passer rating against the Cardinals. "The guys around me -- my teammates and coaches -- are always putting in time with me and it's coming. I was anxious to wipe away the memories of last year. I learned a lot from it, but there were frustrating times."
Two other youngsters showed a lot of promise in the season debut, as well. Running back Frank Gore rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He also caught six passes for 83 yards. The 49ers traded away running back Kevan Barlow last month to the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick. Barlow had been the 49ers' featured back for the previous two seasons.
"I know some of you might ask, 'Do you really think you found a back?'" Nolan said. "No, I think I knew a long time ago."
Also, rookie tight end Vernon Davis showed his immense physical talents when he took a screen pass and blasted 31 yards down the sideline for a touchdown on his first touch of the season.
The 49ers rolled up 393 total yards -- better than they managed in any game last season -- despite missing the services of left guard Larry Allen for most of the game. Allen, who was the team's best offensive lineman in the preseason, sustained a right knee sprain on the fifth play of the game.
Neither Allen or left tackle Jonas Jennings (right ankle) are expected to play Sunday against the Rams.
The 49ers had two good shots at the end zone in the closing seconds from the 36-yard line but came up empty in a 34-27 loss to the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz. After falling behind 21-7 in the first quarter, the 49ers put enough together to remain in the game until the end. Nolan said he liked what he saw from his team after a year in which the club ranked last in the NFL in offense and defense.
"I think we're a better football team than we were a year ago, but we haven't arrived," Nolan said.
--LG Larry Allen went down on the fifth play of the game with a left knee sprain. Allen was listed as doubtful for next week's game against the Rams on the preliminary injury report. Tony Wragge filled in for Allen.
--LT Jonas Jennings missed seven plays with a right high ankle sprain. He returned to the game but was listed as doubtful for the game next week against the Rams on the preliminary injury report.
--WR Arnaz Battle was chosen as the team's primary punt returner, supplanting rookie Brandon Williams. Battle returned three punts for 71 yards, including a 60-yarder in the fourth quarter.
--LB Brandon Moore did not start but he showed his worth as a pass rusher. Moore recorded one sack and pressured Cardinals QB Kurt Warner into an intentional-grounding penalty.
--TE Vernon Davis had an up-and-down first game in the NFL. The first time he touched the ball, he scored on a 31-yard screen play, demonstrating his uncommon speed down the left sideline. Davis later fumbled and sustained a left hip bruise on the play. Later, he dropped a pass that would've kept a drive alive deep in Cardinals territory.
--RB Frank Gore ran extremely hard, gaining 87 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He also caught six passes for 83 yards. But Gore also committed a fumble that led to a short Cardinals TD drive.