If the Arizona Cardinals plan on relevancy in the NFC West, it's almost paramount they hold serve against the division-leading San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football.
A 4-0 start has quickly dissipated into three straight losses for the Cards, including a 21-14 setback at Minnesota in Week 7. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson ran for 153 yards and a touchdown in that one.
John Skelton threw a touchdown pass to Andre Roberts with less than two minutes remaining in the game, but Arizona could not recover the onside kick, sealing the victory for the Vikings.
Despite a career rushing day from LaRod Stephens-Howling, who ran for 104 yards and a touchdown, the Cardinals struggled to get into an offensive rhythm, converting on third down just 5-of-14 times.
Skelton, who got the start for the injured Kevin Kolb, completed 25-of-36 throws for 262 yards and an interception for Arizona.
"I don't think anyone is packing it in, no one is ready to call it a season," said Skelton. "We're going to get back to our winning ways, starting with San Francisco this week. It will be another dog fight with an NFC West opponent but we just have to be ready for it."
The 49ers regained the top spot in the West with a hard-fought 13-6 win over Seattle at Candlestick Park in Week 7. Delanie Walker's touchdown catch in the third quarter proved to be the difference in that one.
Frank Gore provided most of the offense for the 49ers despite suffering bruised ribs as he totaled 131 yards on 16 carries and added five catches for 51 yards to help his team bounce back from a rout at the hands of the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants.
Alex Smith was 14-for-23 with 140 yards, one touchdown and one interception while David Akers kicked a pair of field goals for San Francisco.
"I was expecting a close, physical game because that's how both our games were last year," Smith said. "I didn't expect a big stat game, but this was a really tough one that we had. This is a very satisfying win for the whole club."
The 49ers lead the all-time series with the Cards by a 24-17 margin and have won five of the past six.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This contest should be all about which offense can better navigate the pitfalls of facing two top-tier defenses.
The 49ers are allowing an NFL-low 272.3 yards per game and rank second in the NFL, giving up just 14.3 points per game. Meanwhile, Arizona is right behind, allowing 16.9 points (fourth) and 312.1 yards (seventh).
"All of the teams in the NFC West have a defense that's strong, that's very physical," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "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."
"They play outstanding defense," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh countered when talking about the Cards. "A team that we know. They know us. Have a lot of respect for the Cardinals."
Neither quarterback is playing well right now. Smith remains a game manager, albeit a good one, due to his lack of options outside the numbers. Skelton, meanwhile, is prone to the interception, including a pick six to Minnesota rookie Harrison Smith in the team's last encounter. In fact, Skelton has compiled an NFL-worst 17 interceptions in his last 349 passing attempts.
"You can't squander it. You can't give it away," Skelton said. "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."
Stephens-Howling provided a welcome boost to the running game against the Vikings and despite a perceived lack of size, he runs with far more wiggle than either Beanie Wells or Ryan Williams, who are both injured.
That said the Cardinals averaged nearly 23 points while winning their first four games but have scored just 33 total since. At some point the offense in Arizona has to hold its own water since the Cards have lost games in which their defense allowed just seven completions (vs. St. Louis) and eight (Minnesota).
"It kind of feels like we're not handling our side of the ball," Stephens- Howling said. "The defense is playing great, the special teams are playing great, we just need to pick it up."
Getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald figured to be an easier proposition for Arizona when the strong-armed Skelton was placed back in the lineup for the injured Kolb. But, the All-Pro was targeted seven times against the Vikings and caught just four balls for 29 yards. Of course Minnesota had lengthy cornerback Chris Cook while San Francisco's corners, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, are shorter and could struggle with Fitzgerald's size.
With 10 days of rest in between games, Gore should be ready to go on Monday. The veteran, who has 11 touchdowns in 11 career starts against the Cardinals, spearheads a 49ers offense which averages 176.6 rushing yards per game, second in the NFL.
"It seems to me they run the ball on everybody," said Whisenhunt. 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."
Getting Gore going is important for the Niners because their only options to stretch the defense are tight end Vernon Davis up the seam and the aging, increasingly unproductive Randy Moss on the outside.
Something has to give in the desert during this big NFC West encounter. Skelton is 6-0 at home in his career as a starter while his counterpart with the Niners, Smith, has won four of his past five starts versus the Cardinals and is 8-1 in his past nine starts in the division.
Both teams have stars on offense but Skelton has to find a way to get the ball to Fitzgerald while Smith can just turn around and hand it off to Gore.
That and the fact that Arizona typically struggles on Monday night, losing eight of its last nine MNF games, leads you to believe the 49ers will squeak one out in the desert.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Cardinals 14