The stage was to be set for a Monday Night Football NFC West showdown. The two-time champion Arizona Cardinals were set to host the almost-there and hot choice to win the NFC West San Francisco 49ers. It was to feature several stories -- the mouths of Darnell Dockett and Patrick Willis, the rushing of Frank Gore and Beanie Wells, the rivalry and bad blood between Vernon Davis and Adrian Wilson, and the quarterbacks trying to prove they are not busts with Matt Leinart and Alex Smith. The coaches matched up the competitive but understated Ken Whisenhunt against the fiery and, at times, crazy and unpredictable Mike Singletary. It was a game that was to have playoff implications.
That is how the game was supposed to be heading into the start of the season. Instead, it features two teams fighting even to be relevant in a division that is barely relevant. Two 3-7 teams face off in a battle more about pride than anything else. Arizona has lost five straight, while San Francisco, who started the season losing five straight, has won two of its past three.
Both teams have had changes at the quarterback position. Derek Anderson starts for Arizona, but has been unimpressive, which led to an early season benching in favor of undrafted rookie Max Hall. The 49ers now start Troy Smith, who was picked up after being left for dead by Baltimore, who originally drafted him. Smith starts in place of former number one pick Alex Smith, who has struggled with injuries and lack of production.
With the Cardinals' recent struggles, this stretch of schedule is crucial if they want to even keep their flicker of hope for the playoffs alive. Seattle and St. Louis sit atop the division at 5-6, so a win would put Arizona only a game behind. Including tonight, they have four games that should be very winnable, the next three of which are at University of Phoenix Stadium. San Francisco is 3-7. St. Louis comes to town next week at 5-6 and has not been strong on the road this season. The following week, the 3-8 Denver Broncos come to town, and then the Cards go to Carolina to face the currently 1-10 Panthers.
If they can somehow win all those games, they sit at 7-7 with a Christmas night battle at home versus the Dallas Cowboys and close out the regular season in San Francisco.
As for tonight's game, it is hard to give either team the edge. The Cardinals have been woeful on offense, ranking 28 in the league in scoring offense and 31 in scoring defense. San Francisco is 31 in scoring offense (16.0 points per game), but a more respectable 17 in scoring defense (21.9 points per game). Arizona wins close games and typically loses in terrible fashion (as attested by their -104 point differential), while the 49ers have been in almost all of their contests.
What you can likely expect is a very emotional game, as there is some bad blood between these teams. Expect to see a lot of Frank Gore and Vernon Davis, as the Cards have struggled to keep running backs and tight ends from hurting them. At the same time, Arizona's defense has shown it can step up and dominate a game, as it did against the New Orleans Saints.
San Francisco will also bring it on defense. Patrick Willis always comes ready to play and Nate Clement is good for a big play or two.
The fans will be heard. Unfortunately for Arizona, if things do not go well to begin the game, the fans may turn on the team, rather than cheering them on. If the game is competitive, it will be raucous.
Injuries will be more of a factor for Arizona. CB Greg Toler and DE Calais Campbell are game-day decisions, but LaRod Stephens-Howling may return, which gives special teams a boost. Darnell Dockett and Clark Haggans are still listed, but are expected to play. For San Francisco, they will be without OL Joe Staley and might be without K Joe Nedney, which could be a factor if the game is close.
In any case, the question comes down to which Cardinal defense shows up, or rather, if the defense shows up at all. San Francisco is always ready defensively for Arizona. If the cardinals are ready on defense, expect a bloodbath with very little scoring. If that is the case, the Cardinals should prevail, as San Fran has consistently found ways to lose at the end of games. The winner can keep their faint hopes up for at least another week in a terrible NFC West. The loser? They can hope, but it will be in the dark.