Arizona's gigantic defensive end Calais Campbell talked this week about how he "hates" the San Francisco 49ers "with a passion."
That kind of remark might provide bulletin board material if this was some college showdown. These NFC West rivals have played each other enough to know what feelings are and aren't involved, and that talk is usually just talk.
Besides, Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson noted, Campbell "doesn't have a filter on his mouth."
"Hate is a strong word," San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith said. "I mean, they're a division opponent. Obviously there's a lot of history there, we play them twice a year. Great rivalry; hate is a word I wouldn't use."
Hate-speak aside, what matters Monday night is what happens when two of the best defenses in the NFL take the field, the 49ers (5-2) looking to widen their lead in the division, the Cardinals (4-3) trying to end a three-game skid and move into a tie with San Francisco atop what's become one of the league's toughest divisions.
"We have some bad blood between the two teams with the success that they've had in recent years and we had before that," Arizona quarterback John Skelton said. "It's just a chance to get back on track after these three games that we lost. We win this game and it kind of rights all wrongs."
Wilson has a hard time calling this a rivalry when the 49ers have won five of the last six in the series. That victory, though, came in their last meeting, 21-19 in Glendale last Dec. 11. It was one of only three regular-season losses for San Francisco. In that game, Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb took a knee to the head in the first series and was replaced by Skelton, who finished out the season at the position.
With Kolb now out for the second game in a row with rib and chest injuries, Skelton will be at the controls again Monday.
He threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice against San Francisco last year.
Smith was 18 for 37 for 185 yards in that loss and the Cardinals held the 49ers to 90 yards rushing. But it still was close, thanks to three Arizona turnovers.
"I feel like every time we play each other these are just physical battles," Smith said. "Most of the time they are coming down to the end, and they are hard-fought games."
San Francisco (5-2) is coming off a 13-6 victory at home over Seattle, the kind of win that's become common in a division dominated by defense. Arizona (4-3) lost 21-14 at Minnesota when Adrian Peterson rushed for 153 yards.
But Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said he could live with that kind of stat because the Vikings managed just 209 yards overall.
"I'll take 200 yards total offense this week as well," he said. "I don't care how they get it. If they want to run for 199 and pass for 1 yard, if we can hold them to 200 yards, I'll be happy."
Slowing the run game, obviously, is again Arizona's No. 1 target in a game that will be played beneath the desert stars if, in a rare instance, the University of Phoenix Stadium's roof is open, as has been speculated.
"These guys like to pound the ball," Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said, "bringing in big offensive linemen to replace the tight ends and things like that. These guys, they do a lot of trick-'em stuff on offense to run those quick traps and get into the second level fast."
The 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing thanks to longtime Cardinals nemesis Frank Gore, whose 601 yards rushing rank fifth in the league. His 131 yards last weekend against Seattle, on just 16 carries, were a season high. Gore has a more-than-capable backup in second-year back Kendall Hunter, who's gained 258 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
San Francisco brings the No. 1 ranked defense in the league. Arizona's is rated No. 7.
"Our defense does a great job of playing within the framework of the defense and playing together," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They do a tremendous job of that, and sometimes that doesn't show up in the low-hanging statistical fruit, but there is so much more to it ... than sacks, or interceptions for a defensive back. Really, I think you tell a good defense by how they tackle. That's a good way to tell if you have a good defense. I think our guys do that well and they have contact courage."
There could be plenty of "low-hanging statistical fruit" to be had against an Arizona offense mired 31st out of 32 NFL teams. A woeful offensive line is the main culprit for the 29 sacks the Cardinals have given up in the last four games. Skelton was sacked seven times at Minnesota.
But the Cardinals were able to get their running game going a tad bit the last two weeks, even though the top two running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are out with injuries.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona's 5-foot-7 situational back, moved into the every-down spot and gained a career-high 104 yards on 20 carries. He also caught four passes for 45 yards.
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