It's an NFC West showdown on Monday Night Football as the San Francisco 49ers take on the Arizona Cardinals.
The 49ers (5-2) sit atop the division, but haven't play nearly as dominant football as people expected. Losses to Minnesota and the Giants have critics wondering about their long-term chances with Alex Smith under center.
Still, Smith is playing the best football of his career, and this is an extremely talented team that seems to be growing up under Jim Harbaugh. Despite their maddening lapses, it's clear at times that the 49ers are one of the best teams in football.
The Cardinals (4-3) are second in the division, but are playing (at least right now) a very different brand of football. Kevin Kolb, injured behind an atrocious offensive line, gave way to John Skelton, who actually beat out Kolb before the season.
Quarterback carousel aside, the Cardinals' running game has also faltered with injuries to Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. The defense, once keeping the Cardinals in games, is getting overloaded.
Which NFC West rival will win on Monday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Is the NFC West Still Up for Grabs?
Some people thought that the Cardinals had a shot at the division title before the season. For a time, those predictions looked awfully correct. Meanwhile, the once-mighty 49ers look vulnerable. The Rams and Seahawks look a year off, but both have improved from 2011.
Conventional wisdom says that this division is the 49ers' to lose, but the Cardinals are full of all sorts of surprises. If they can win on Monday night, it could keep them in the race or open the door for another team to swing in there.
If the 49ers win, they could slam the door on the rest of that division.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is Alex Smith the QB to Lead the Niners to the Promised Land?
Let's be honest. Expectations for Smith were never lower than before the last two seasons. After years of ineptitude and turnover around him, fans and media had written Smith off. Then, Harbaugh seemingly turned him around, but even then flirted with Peyton Manning before the season.
Smith has responded with the best season of his career and is clearly one of the leaders on this team. He has, both last year and now, put this team on his back. Does he have the ability to lead this team to the mountaintop or will he hold the team back from greatness?
The Cardinals are just one of the many good defenses Smith will have to beat the rest of the year. He needs to perform (and perform well) to give his teammates and coaching staff confidence in his abilities.
Keys for the San Francisco 49ers on Offense
The Niners need to run the ball. They need to run it early, often and in a varied fashion. Run with Frank Gore. Run with Kendall Hunter. Run with Colin Kaepernick. Run with Mario Manningham. Run with Alex Smith.
Just run the ball.
The Arizona Cardinals can rush the passer and they can take advantage of quarterback mistakes. They can also make big special-teams plays. By limiting their chances to do any of those things, the Niners would have a solid chance of shutting out the Cardinals entirely.
Keys for the Arizona Cardinals on Offense
In many ways, this matchup is like throwing pebbles at a brick wall. The Niners have a great defense, and the Cardinals' offense—suspect even when everyone is healthy—is a near-skeleton crew. (Or, is that a Skelton crew?)
Stay the course and protect the quarterback. Keeping in max protect isn't going to put up tons of points, but it can move the ball down the field and play the field-position game. Keeping the game close means more opportunities to rattle Smith the other way.
In the end, if this offense is going to do anything, it's going to be on shots down the field to Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Roberts. If those shots don't connect or end up in the wrong hands, the Cardinals have no chance.
Keys for the San Francisco 49ers on Defense
I don't think the Niners have to do anything out of the ordinary here, but it will be important to get to Skelton with only four pass-rushers. If the Niners aren't connecting, it will leave Fitzgerald open down the field, and he (nearly single-handedly) can beat just about anyone. The less the Niners have to blitz with extra bodies, the better.
Keys for the Arizona Cardinals on Defense
The Cardinals are going to have to commit extra bodies to the line of scrimmage in this one. Even if Smith is beating them through the air, even if he's sitting back in single-back shotgun, they can't get complacent and overuse their sub-packages. The more the Niners think they can throw, the better chances Arizona has to win this game.
Force Smith and the Niners' passing attack to beat you. Even if they end up succeeding, it was the best chance (the only chance?) for victory.
Bold Prediction: Arizona's Defense/Special Teams Will Outscore Their Offense
I can honestly foresee a shutout for the Cardinals' offense in this one. Not saying it will happen, but the likelihood isn't out of this world. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' best playmaker—Patrick Peterson—is on the other side of the ball and an elite special-teamer.
If the Cardinals win tonight, it will be because of monumental scoring contribution from the two phases of the game most teams don't rely on for points.
Player of the Game Prediction: Frank Gore
The Niners love to "get cute" on offense but this game should be all about imposing their will on the other team. Frank Gore could flirt with 100 yards in the first half if the Niners give him the ball over and over. Sure, the Niners should keep balanced, and sure, they can roll out some other ways of running the ball, but feeding Gore is the easiest path to victory.
Final Score Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 27 Arizona Cardinals 10
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!