Posted by Dave Cooney: email
The NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers followed up an uncharacteristic one-sided loss with a gritty division-opening win last week.
They're expecting another tough battle when they visit the desert Monday night.
Points could be hard to come by as San Francisco -- winner of 10 of 12 against division opponents -- squares off against the offensively-challenged Arizona Cardinals, who are hoping to avoid a fourth consecutive loss.
After suffering a 26-3 defeat to the New York Giants in Week 6, the 49ers (5-2) got back on track last Thursday with a 13-6 win over Seattle. Frank Gore ran for a season-high 131 yards and added five receptions for another 51 while the defense limited the Seahawks to 251 yards of total offense.
"We expect these games in the NFC West to be 60 minutes of physical football," left tackle Joe Staley said.
Gore was forced from that victory with bruised ribs but -- thanks to 10 days off -- should be good to go for what sets up as another highly-competitive showdown Monday night.
While the 49ers are giving up an NFL-low 272.3 yards per game and rank second with 14.3 points allowed, Arizona (4-3) isn't far behind. The Cardinals are holding opponents to averages of 16.9 points and 312.1 yards to rank fourth and seventh, respectively.
"All of the teams in the NFC West have a defense that's strong, that's very physical," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told the 49ers' official website. "That's a great quality for our division to show to the rest of the league. I know that it will be a physical game on Monday night. It always is when we play the 49ers."
San Francisco had held the Cardinals to 9.0 points during a five-game win streak in this series before falling 21-19 in Arizona on Dec. 11.
"They play outstanding defense... ," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "A team that we know. They know us. Have a lot of respect for the Cardinals."
Since averaging 22.8 points in winning its first four games to post its best start in 38 years, Arizona has been limited to a combined 33 in dropping three in a row. The Cardinals outgained Minnesota 356-209 in total offense but came up short last Sunday, falling 21-14.
"It kind of feels like we're not handling our side of the ball," LaRod Stephens-Howling said after running for a career-best 104 yards and a TD. "The defense is playing great, the special teams are playing great, we just need to pick it up and score points."
While Stephens-Howling was able to provide a spark, John Skelton struggled in his second start of the season. Skelton threw for 262 yards with a touchdown but was sacked seven times and committed two turnovers.
Skelton has compiled an NFL-worst 4.9 interception percentage since Nov. 6, throwing 17 picks in 349 attempts.
"You can't squander it," he told the team's official website. "You can't give it away. The way our defense is playing, any points on the board is really a win for us, because we know we're not going to have to get into a shootout with anyone at this point."
Sitting in a second-place tie with Seattle, Arizona dropped one game behind San Francisco with last Sunday's loss.
"Those guys are definitely where we want to be," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Those guys are the NFC West champs as of right now. As an Arizona Cardinals team, we have a lot to prove and we want to get where those guys are."
Slowing down San Francisco's ground game could prove crucial if Arizona hopes to stick around Monday. The 49ers have recorded 176.6 rushing yards per contest to rank second in the league -- nearly double what the Cardinals are averaging (89.3).
"It seems to me they run the ball on everybody," said Whisenhunt, whose team has surrendered 331 rushing yards on 5.5 per carry during its last two games.
"It doesn't matter who it is, they've done a nice job. They've got a good scheme, they're well-coached. I've watched Frank Gore for a number of years and have great respect for him as a player."
Gore has averaged 113.2 yards from scrimmage and ran for 11 touchdowns in 11 career starts against the Cardinals.
Arizona has dropped eight of its last nine Monday night games, with its lone win coming 29-24 over San Francisco on Nov. 10, 2008.