49ers vs. Cardinals: Breaking Down Week 8 NFC West Battle
However, if the 49ers' hot streak continues, the Cardinals will head into Week 9 on a four-game losing streak, which won't bode well for their playoff hopes.
On the flip side, if Arizona can knock off the vaunted San Francisco defense, the Cardinals and 49ers will leave University of Phoenix Stadium with identical 5-3 records atop the NFC West division.
Here are each team's keys to victory for Monday night.
Neutralize Frank Gore
San Francisco certainly isn't a pass-first team, and that's primarily because they have one of the league's most dominant backs in Frank Gore.
Heading into Monday night's game, the 49ers' offense ranks second in the league on the ground, but just 29th through the air, so if the Cardinals want to have a shot at taking down Jim Harbaugh's squad, they'll need to force Alex Smith to throw the football, rather than hand it off.
Heading into tonight's game, ESPN reports:
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.
The Cardinals may not be as good as the 49ers thus far, but they're still among the league's stingiest on the defensive side of the ball, and if they can minimize Frank Gore's impact on the game, they'll have a much better shot at coming away with a crucial home victory over their division rivals.
A Steady Performance From Alex Smith
Alex Smith has been everything the 49ers could've hoped for and more through the first seven weeks of the season, as the former No. 1 overall pick has managed the offense well without ever trying to do too much.
That's exactly what the 49ers need out of their quarterback tonight, especially considering that the Cardinals are still without their top signal-caller Kevin Kolb.
As usual, Smith won't need to be the difference-maker. He just needs to do enough for the 49ers to win, while allowing their defense will do the rest. If Smith can throw for somewhere around 200 yards with a touchdown or two, the 49ers will roll.
If he can't, John Skelton and Larry Fitzgerald probably still won't be able to take this one away from the 49ers, but it'd be a lot easier for Harbaugh's guys if Smith, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree put some points on the board to provide security.
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