Karlos Dansby; Vernon Davis (Getty)
The Cardinals probably will say all the right things this week, about respecting the 49ers, about how the 49ers play them as well as anyone. That all might be true, but it's also true the Cardinals have pointed to this game since losing to the 49ers in the season opener.
Players have mentioned that game often throughout the season, and for a time, it appeared that loss could cost the Cardinals their second consecutive division title.
But the Cardinals righted themselves and are 8-4. The 49ers, meanwhile, have floundered to a 5-7 mark.
A victory Monday night at Candlestick Park will give the Cardinals the NFC West title, and they would like nothing better than to celebrate on the 49ers' turf.
Again, the Cardinals likely will say all the right things. But they think they are much better than the team that lost to the 49ers, 20-16, in the opener.
Receiver Anquan Boldin was hobbled in that game with a sore hamstring. Receiver Steve Breaston didn't play because of a knee injury. The defense gave up a long touchdown drive late.
"We go back and look at the tape of the first game," said coach Ken Whisenhunt, "and we didn't have Steven. Anquan wasn't 100 percent healthy. It's different. We're playing different now, which is good at this point of the season."
The run game has improved, too. The Cardinals remain ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing statistics, but the run game is at least a threat now. If the 49ers choose to keep their safeties back to defend against long plays, the Cardinals think they are better able to gash them with running backs Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells.
SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. The 49ers lead, 20-16, including a 20-16 victory in the season opener in Arizona. The Cardinals swept the 49ers in 2008, but San Francisco has played Arizona tougher than any other team in the NFC West over the past two seasons. In the meeting this year, the 49ers controlled the Cardinals' offense by putting pressure on quarterback Kurt Warner with a four-man rush.
--Last Sunday's victory over the Vikings set records for local television ratings. In the Phoenix market, the game had a 31.9 rating and a 46 share. Those are records for a Cardinals regular-season game.
--Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling has become a valuable special teams player. He leads the team in special teams tackles and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Only 5-7, Stephens-Howling has always had to overcome his lack of size to convince coaches he could play.
"I got this from somebody else," Stephens-Howling said with a smile, "but I never heard a coach tell somebody to get high. It's always the low man who wins. It's something that's working for me."
--Safety Antrel Rolle was used in the Wildcat formation last week. Rolle can throw the ball 70 yards and he is a good runner. Against the Vikings, he looked deep but protection broke down. Rolle scrambled for a 9-yard gain.
"I'm glad we got to run it, though, and yes, absolutely, I hope they let me do it more often," Rolle said with a grin.
--Offensive tackle Jeremy Bridges started at left tackle last week for the first time in his seven-year career. He spent the night blocking, and talking, to Vikings end Jared Allen. Bridges said he talked so much that he was hoarse after the game. Allen finished without a tackle.
--Third-year defensive back Michael Adams picked the perfect time to make his first career interception, picking off a Brett Favre pass in the third quarter that helped swing momentum.
"I've got the ball and I'm going to make sure I get it framed or something," Adams said. "My first career pick and it's against the great Brett Favre?
"I may try to get him to sign it. I'll have to make some calls or whatever and see if I can't get that done. I don't know how he'd feel about that, though."
BY THE NUMBERS: 84 -- That's Anquan Boldin's average receiving yardage in the four games he's played since missing the Chicago game. The week off appears to have allowed Boldin to recover from ankle problems, and he's producing at a Pro Bowl level. His has three touchdowns in the last four games after scoring just once in the first seven.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You want to have the opportunity at this time of year to be physical with opponents. I think it's a good sign we were able to play that type of game. That's the way it has to be every game. It can't just be a Sunday night game or a game where our backs are against the wall." -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Running back Tim Hightower has fumbled three times in the first quarter this season. Coaches don't think Hightower is being careless with the ball but that he needs to be aware of opponents punching it out at the end of runs.
The Cardinals should be helped by the addition of linebacker Monty Beisel, who is rounding into shape after signing two weeks ago. Beisel can play both inside and outside.
Michael Adams replaced Ralph Brown as the dime corner last week. Adams is quicker and faster, although not as experienced as Brown. Adams matched up better physically against the Vikings Percy Harvin.
--RT Levi Brown is showing steady improvement as the season progresses. Brown has played well over the past month and coaches are encouraged by his improvement.
--TE Anthony Becht has solidified the team's edge blocking. The Cardinals are using more two tight end sets, and Becht and Ben Patrick have blocked well.
--K Neil Rackers has a strained groin but he's missed only one field goal this year. Rackers has attempted just 16 field goals, a sign of the team's red zone success.
--DL Alan Branch is developing into a reliable player. He was able to push the interior pocket against the Vikings, which helped the outside pass rush.