The reeling Arizona Cardinals need to recapture their early season momentum on Monday night when they host the San Francisco 49ers in University of Phoenix Stadium.
The NFC West has certainly upped its game from a 7-9 division winner in 2010. Among the biggest storylines has been the improvement of what's recently been football's worst division. Through the first quarter of the NFL slate, the Cardinals were 4-0 and leading the discussion.
Now they are in the midst of a collapse and must get on track before playoff contention slips away completely.
Meanwhile, San Francisco is coming off of one of the more physical games of pro football in recent memory, beating Seattle 13-6 last Thursday at home. Extra rest was necessary after such a battle, and the Niners should be ready to grab a firm lead atop the division.
Here is a closer look at Week 8's version of Monday Night Football.
Current Betting Line (via Bovada)
Spread: San Francisco (-7)
Money Line: San Francisco (-300), Arizona (+250)
What's at Stake
Should the Cards drop to 4-4, the season wouldn't be unsalvageable, but it'd be pretty close to crashing. The defense can only do so much, and the struggling offense will find few plays to be made against San Francisco. A win would make a huge statement.
The Niners have the opportunity to take a two-game lead in the division should they win and the Seahawks lose. Also, QB Alex Smith must play better, because he has not been impressive the past two games. Although, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNbayarea.com, the finger injury he's been dealing with may be a factor.
Either way, Smith needs to step up and take back control of the offense to prove he has what it takes to guide a team to a Super Bowl.
Injury News (via ESPN)
San Francisco 49ers
Mario Manningham, WR (shoulder) QUESTIONABLE—The Super Bowl hero was the team's big free-agent acquisition this offseason, but was out of the lineup for the Seattle game. He did return to practice this Thursday and wasn't limited, so there is a pretty good chance he'll be on the field in Arizona.
Todd Heap, TE (knee) QUESTIONABLE—It's been five games since Heap last played, which puts his status for Monday night more in doubt. The Cards could use the presence of another veteran on offense, and QB John Skelton would love to have him in particular against the stingy 49ers D.
Kerry Rhodes, S (back) QUESTIONABLE—James Sanders filled in well for Rhodes last week against Minnesota, but Rhodes at least saw the field on a limited basis in Friday's practice. Rhodes' status remains up in the air.
The offensive line for Arizona must do at least a decent job in holding off the terrifying San Francisco front seven.
They must provide some semblance of a hole for LaRod Stephens-Howling to run through. Otherwise, Aldon and Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are going to have a field day with a stuffed box and plenty of licks laid on Skelton.
11th Hour Fantasy Advice
Against the 20th-ranked rush defense, Gore is a no-brainer to start this week. The secondary for the Cards is stout, but the Niners don't pass the ball particularly well anyway. It should be a steady diet of Gore, who appears to be fine from being banged up at the end of Week 7 based on his absence from the injury list.
The conservative nature of the Niners' passing game would appear to look to star tight end Vernon Davis more than any other receiver, but Crabtree has actually had a team-high 50 balls fly his way from QB Alex Smith. Whatever San Fran can get through the air, chances are it will be from Crabtree. He is a solid flex option, but that's probably about it.
With a breakout 100-yard game in Week 7, the fourth-year back has to be looked at as at least a flex option against San Francisco. Stephens-Howling is an exceptional receiver out of the backfield, and Skelton will want to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Somehow, the offensive line came to life to block for the back last week, and it's worth seeing if that will continue.
Skelton can stretch the field more with Fitzgerald than Kevin Kolb can because of superior arm strength. However, the Niners aren't a team to let up a ton of explosive plays. Fitzgerald will continue to be the most targeted Cardinals receiver, though, so he is worth a play despite double coverage from Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson.
Jim Harbaugh will have his team ready after a pseudo bye week to dominate the inferior Cardinals. This game will likely start out pretty close, with a big play or two by Arizona early and the Niners' running game a bit stagnant to begin.
Once the second half rolls around, though, Gore will get rolling, eat up the clock and the defense will force turnovers from Skelton to make this a decisive outcome.
Final Score: 49ers 30, Cardinals 13