Larry Fitzgerald (Getty)
The Arizona Cardinals and NFC West division foe, the San Francisco 49es, square off on Sunday at 4:15 p.m. ET for the two team's 36th regular season meeting. The 49ers lead the series 19-16 but a little birdie predicts the Cardinals will get one more win after this Sunday.
SERIES: The Cardinals won both games last season and have won six of the past eight meetings since 2005. The series has been swept each of the last five seasons, with the 49ers bringing out the brooms in 2004 and 2007.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 27-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: There's no secret to the 49ers' attack - it's a physical approach with RB Frank Gore leading the way and complemented by rookie backup Glen Coffee. San Francisco needs a strong outing from its offensive line so it can jump out to an early lead and attempt to wear the Cardinals down on both sides of the ball. If Arizona gets a lead, the Cardinals could be off to the races. San Francisco hasn't displayed much improvement in its pass rush. Meanwhile, the 49ers must account for an improved Cardinals ground game that includes rookie Beanie Wells teaming starter Tim Hightower.
FAST FACTS: 49ers WR Isaac Bruce needs 56 receiving yards to join Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with 15,000 in a career. ... The Cardinals were 6-0 vs. the NFC West last year.
--WR Micheal Spurlock won a spot on the 49ers' 53-man roster with his versatility. He can be a factor in the return game. He also has a role in the 49ers' version of the "Wildcat," which they call the "Taser" formation. Spurlock was a college quarterback at Mississippi before making the transition to receiver in the NFL.
--TE Vernon Davis had a strong offseason and figures to have the most productive season of his NFL career because of the importance offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye places in the position. Davis was kept into block on a lot of third downs last season. The team plans to feature him as a receiver on short and intermediate routes.
--FS Dashon Goldson was informed early in the offseason that he would be a starter this season. He replaces veteran Mark Roman, who will enter the game when the 49ers go with six defensive backs. Goldson was elevated to the starting lineup because of his playmaking ability. Roman went more than two full seasons without an interception.
--WR Josh Morgan entered training camp with high expectations of emerging as the team's No. 1 receiver. Morgan will start at split end this season, but he only showed flashes of his ability in training camp. He must improve his consistency. Morgan caught 20 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games (one start) last season.
--OT Tony Pashos signed a one-year contract that will pay him $1.2 million in base salary and $500,000 in incentives this season. Pashos, who started 47 of 48 games the past three seasons with the Ravens and Jaguars, joins the 49ers as a backup to right tackle Adam Snyder.
--WR Early Doucet participated in a large portion of Thursday's practice but is still expected to miss Sunday's game with fractured ribs.
--WR Anquan Boldin hasn't practice fully since suffering a right hamstring injury on Aug. 25. Boldin did some light practicing on Thursday and worked out with an athletic trainer later. He likely will be questionable for Sunday's game.
--QB Kurt Warner appears fully recovered from hip surgery last spring. Warner struggled with some pain during camp but recently has said his hip is feeling much better than it did a month ago.
--RB Tim Hightower will start on Sunday but look for rookie Beanie Wells to get plenty of action, too. Wells has recovered from a sprained right ankle and has looked quick lately.
--RB Beanie Wells isn't likely to challenge Tim Hightower for the starting job for at least several more weeks. Hightower is a better blocker and a proven receiver. Wells has to prove himself in those roles before taking over.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
When it came time for the San Francisco 49ers to name a starting right cornerback, veteran Dre' Bly was surprised he did not get the call.
Shawntae Spencer was also surprised. He did not expect to draw the starting assignment for the 49ers' season opener Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Spencer, who missed the final 14 games last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, will not ease his way back into the starting lineup, either. His first assignment will come with a lot of coverage against Anquan Boldin.
"It would fall that way," Spencer said, laughing.
Spencer said he has been really concentrated on the fundamentals and technique during his rehabilitation. Spencer said he knew it was important for him to concentrate his rehab on staying low, bending his knees and being able to change direction quickly.
"If there was a chance I might be losing some speed, I knew I had to gain technique," he said.
And that's exactly what he did to win over coach Mike Singletary and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
"He did his job consistently week-in and week-out in the preseason and in practice," Manusky said. "We like what we saw as a player and as a coaching staff, knowing the calls, doing his job and making a couple plays here and there. Just really playing clean and smooth, and that is what we liked about him."
Spencer is also three inches taller than both Bly and Tarell Brown, who was also considered for the starting job opposite Nate Clements.
"I think Shawntae is a physical player," Manusky said. "He has quickness, he has speed and he has great eyes. He can jam guys at the line of scrimmage. With all those combinations of what you look for in a cornerback, he has those, and that is why he earned the starting position."
The Cardinals are among the deepest teams in the NFL at receiver, but that depth could be tested in the season opener Sunday against the 49ers.
Anquan Boldin hasn't gone through a full practice since suffering a strained hamstring on Aug. 25. He did some light running on Thursday, but that was mostly to make sure he knew the game plan and his play-to-play assignments.
Steve Breaston, the third receiver, admitted he's not 100 percent recovered from a knee injury suffered in the first preseason game. Early Doucet, in his second season, is out with fractured ribs.
As a result of the injuries, quarterback Kurt Warner hasn't worked with two of his top three receivers as much as he would like. Warner's strength is his accuracy, and he places a heavy emphasis on timing and precise route running.
The changes at receiver played a part in Warner's struggles this preseason. He completed just 52 percent of his passes, didn't have a touchdown and had three throws intercepted.
Boldin hasn't been available to the media in the locker room this week, but has told some people he's intent on playing. On Wednesday, coach Ken Whisenhunt said the chances of Boldin playing are "very good."
On Thursday, he indicated that Boldin's availability could be a game-time decision.