For the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, this is it. After today's game. it will mark the end of their 2010 season. John Skelton starts at quarterback again and will attempt to win on the road for the first time in his career and close the season for him, Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of the team with a victory over the hated Niners. Alex Smith, who has been the on-again, off-again starting quarterback this season, will make the start for San Francisco and will try to get interim head coach Jim Tomsula a win in his debut as head coach. Mike Singletary was relieved of his coaching duties last week following a loss to the St. Louis Rams that eliminated San Francisco from the NFC West race.
The Cardinals, like they did two weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers, face a team with an offense that is worse statistic than their own, which is no small feat. The Cardinals enter the game 26th in the league in scoring, while the Niners come in at 29th. However, San Francisco will be facing Arizona's 28th ranked defense while the Cards face the 18th ranked San Francisco defense.
Arizona is also trying to end a streak of three straight losses to the 49ers.
Unfortunately, this game is nothing what most imagined it would have been. The Cards entered the season as the two-time defending NFC West champs. San Francisco was the sexy pick to come out of the division this year. Patrick Willis even made some noise by signing the ESPN bus with "2010 NFC West champs." With a physical defense, a great running back in Frank Gore and a fiery head coach in Mike Singletary, they were poised to make a run.
This Week 17 matchup was thought to be the game that would decide the division winner. Instead, both teams come in at 5-10 and are fighting to determine who will finish in the cellar of the worst division in football. Bragging rights is all that is left for the teams to fight for, but that might be enough, although it does not guarantee a good football game.
The play at quarterback for both teams more or less sums up their seasons. Alex Smith is starting for the 49ers, and is returning to the job again after having been injured once and benched twice. His season has been nothing to get excited about, but looks great compared to Arizona quarterbacks. He has thrown for over 2000 yards with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Rookie John Skelton finishes the season as the starter. He is the fourth quarterback to be named the starter this . year. First it was Matt Leinart, who didn't make it to the season on the team. Then it was Derek Anderson, then undrafted rookie Max Hall, then Anderson again and finally Skelton. Skelton has not been spectacular and has looked every bit the rookie he is. He has completed less than 50 percent of his passes for a touchdown but only one pick. However, he did come through in a game winning drive last week against the Cowboys and has shown just enough for the Cardinals organization to think that he has promise for the future.
As injuries go, Arizona will likely be without linebacker Jerry Porter. LaRod Stephens-Howling, who missed last week with a pulled hamstring, might play and return kicks again, which is a big boost for the team. San Francisco will be without Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, who underwent surgery this week on his left hand. It is the first time he has missed a game in his career.
Frank Gore is already out for the game, as he was lost for the remainder of the season when he sustained a hip injury the last time the two teams played.
Those are two fortunate absences for the Cardinals, but their biggest challenge is still playing -- Vernon Davis. He (and a slew of other tight ends this season) has been a very difficult player to match up with. Adrian Wilson, recently named to the Pro Bowl, will likely have that assignment most of the game, which will scare many fans.
If the Cards are to be victorious this afternoon, one of the keys will be to stop Brian Westbrook in the running game. You wouldn't think that this would be difficult, but in their meeting earlier this season, Westbrook looked like the back in Philly from five years ago, rushing for 123 yards. He was fresh that game, as he had only carried the ball five times previously, so age should sink in. However, Arizona's rush defense has been suspect, to say the least (30th in the league). If Westbrook never gets going, San Francisco will have to rely on Alex Smith to make plays, and this is exactly what the Cardinals want.
Another key to victory is getting an early lead on the Niners. San Francisco is a tough, physical team, but they are quick to give up when down early. The Cardinals have struggled offensively all year, so this will be a tall task. Perhaps they can rely on an opportunistic defense or special teams, considering that the team has scored 12 touchdowns this season off of returns (punt, kickoff, interception, fumble). A 13th return would tie the league record. Get a lead, get a couple of stops and that is how you bury an underachieving team. That's how teams have beaten the Cardinals this year.
Perhaps the biggest thing for the Cardinals is to not allow big plays. The Niners have some big play threats. Michael Crabtree and Vernon David are a threat on offense if Smith can find them down the field. Ted Ginn, Jr. is capable of taking any pass, punt or kick to the endzone.
Last week against the Rams was a perfect example. St. Louis was shredding them and the Niners were not helping themselves with penalties, but one long catch and run by Crabtree and return by Ginn had them leading 17-15. They went on to lose 25-17, but with the big play threats they have, the game can change in a small moment. Arizona is not good enough to overcome these like the Rams were able to do.
Draft status is at stake for both teams (but this is only something that some fans are thinking about). As noted earlier in the week, the Cardinals will have between the fifth and 11th pick. If they win, San Francisco will pick ahead of them. But regardless, there is no way that any Arizona fan should be cheering for a loss to San Francisco. It is just wrong.
We should expect a game with a lot of emotion. Both teams hate each other and are very unhappy with the seasons they have had. Each team would love to send the other to last place. The 49ers would love to have a fourth consecutive win over the Cards while Arizona really wants to shut up the annoying Niners and finally beat them.
However, being the last game of the season and nothing more than pride on the line, it is completely possible that one or both teams simply fail to show up. For the sake of the fans, let's hope this does not happen to the Cardinals (because we really wouldn't care if the 49ers got clobbered, in fact, we would really love to see it).