Game Preview: Cardinals @ 49ers

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The Cardinals travel to San Francisco for the season finale against the 49ers.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/2/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Jim Mora, Nischelle Turner

PREDICTION: 49ers 23-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: Cardinals rookie QB John Skelton is completing just 45.5 percent of his passes, but has displayed poise while doing a good job of avoiding mistakes (one interception in 101 attempts) and taking advantage of short fields. He does need to get WR Larry Fitzgerald (one reception last week) more involved. The 49ers finish the season under interim coach Jim Tomsula. The offensive line dominated Arizona's front seven as San Francisco rushed for 261 yards in a 27-6 Week 12 victory.

FAST FACTS: The Cardinals have 12 return touchdowns this season - including interceptions, kickoffs, punts and fumbles - one shy of Seattle's 2003 NFL record. ... The 49ers have won the past three meetings.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Cardinals

Guard Alan Faneca will seriously consider retirement for the first time this offseason.

Faneca, who completed his 13th season, turned 34 in early December but played well for the Cardinals.

He has admitted he's not as good a player as he was in his prime, but Faneca was solid in both pass protection and run blocking this year.

"It can always be better, but I think I've done well," Faneca said.

The Cardinals sound as if they would like Faneca back. The club isn't deep in young offensive linemen, and Faneca has provided a steadying influence in the locker room.

"I think there were a lot of judgments about Alan early, based on individual drills that you saw in training camp," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "If you look at his season as a whole, I think he did a good job for us this year. If you can get a lot of players like Alan Faneca on your team, you're going to win some ball games."

Faneca was cut by the Jets last spring and quickly signed with the Cardinals, where he was reunited with Whisenhunt and line coach Russ Grimm, who were assistants in Pittsburgh when Faneca was there.

Faneca said he will discuss the issue with his wife in the coming weeks, but that she has always taken the stance that the decision is his. But Faneca knows he's nearing the end and has tried to enjoy this season as much as possible.

"You know you are getting closer to the end than you are to the beginning," Faneca said. "So you just appreciate the moment and treat it as if it is the last time. I've seen guys that haven't known (it was ending)."

49ers

The 49ers have four defensive starters who will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the league year, and players said they realized that Sunday's finale against Arizona likely would be the last time they're on the field together.

"This probably will be the last time that we're together as a whole," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, who is one of those free agents. The others are linebacker Manny Lawson, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and safety Dashon Goldson.

In addition, another key contributor this season, outside linebacker Travis LaBoy, is a pending free agent while another starter, cornerback Nate Clements, is due to earn $7.25 million in base salary alone, a price tag that vastly outweighs his production over the last two seasons.

Meanwhile, the key cog in the 49ers defense, Patrick Willis, will miss his first ever NFL start after X-rays showed the broken bone in his right hand became misaligned during Sunday's game against the Rams. Willis hasn't missed a start since his junior season at Ole Miss.

Willis said he wants the opportunity to play more games alongside Spikes, who has become a friend and mentor to him. The two will finish one-two on the team in total tackles.

"If they were to ask me at this very moment (I'd say), what do I need to do to make that happen?" Willis said of re-signing Spikes. "He's a guy that still has football left in him. I mean, you all have seen him - the guy plays unbelievable."

PERSONNEL NEWS

Cardinals

--QB Derek Anderson is practicing for the second consecutive week and could serve as the No. 2 quarterback on Sunday.

--QB John Skelton is 2-1 as a starter although he is completing just 45.5 percent of his passes. Skelton, however, has not had a pass intercepted.

--QB Richard Bartel is signed through 2011 and could again be the team's No. 2 quarterback for the third consecutive week.

--RB Tim Hightower continues to start ahead of Beanie Wells but Wells received most of the carries last week. Unless Wells fumbles or struggles in pass protection early, look for him to be the featured back on Sunday.

--RB Beanie Wells has had a disappointing season but he is still the team's best runner. The Cardinals would like to get him off to a good start Sunday in San Francisco.

--RB LaRod Stephens-Howling has been limited in practice because of a hamstring strain. He could play only as a kick returner, but the team needs him on offense, too.

--RB Jason Wright will play a limited amount in some passing situations.

--WR Steve Breaston played fewer snaps than usual last week, giving up playing time to rookie Andre Roberts. Breaston has been hampered by knee problems, perhaps one reason the team hasn't re-signed him to a long-term deal.

--WR Andre Roberts moves into the No. 3 receiver's role now that Early Doucet is out for the year with a hip flexor injury. A rookie, Roberts has improved in recent weeks and can return kicks, too.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald has gained 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth time in seven seasons. He had only one catch last week.

--TE Stephen Spach is mainly a blocker and will rarely be a target in the passing game.

--TE Jim Dray has moved ahead of Ben Patrick as the backup tight end. Dray isn't much of a receiving threat.

--K Jay Feely has a strong leg and has missed just three field goals this season.

49ers

--C Davis Baas took part in practices this week despite bruised ribs suffered when teammate Chilo Rachal fell on top of him during Sunday's loss to the Rams.

--RB Anthony Dixon was limited in practice this week with a sprained ankle. Dixon likely will play in the finale against the Cardinals.

--DE Justin Smith won two team awards. Teammates voted him the Ed Block Courage Award winner. He also won the Matt Hazeltine Iron Man award given to the team's most courageous and inspirational defensive player as voted upon by defensive coaches.

--ILB NaVorro Bowman will start in place of Patrick Willis (hand) at "Mike" linebacker on Sunday. Bowman mostly has played the other inside spot, "Ted", this season.

--RB Frank Gore said he would be off his crutches he has been using because of a broken hip in another two weeks. At that point, he'll be able to do work in the pool and resume lifting weights.

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