The Monday night matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals possesses greater implications than at first glance.
For years we thought of the NFC West as the NFL's weakest division. After all, the Seattle Seahawks did win it in 2010 with a 7-9 record. That said, this Week 8 showdown is for first place in the division as we hit November football in a couple of days.
Last season, the Cardinals defeated San Francisco at home, so an upset is possible. And for the 49ers to avoid such catastrophe, a guy like Vernon Davis must come up huge. Here, we look a look at a few players from each team that will have the most impact regarding Monday night's result.
If there's one major weakness on the Cardinals defense it is defending the intermediate passing game.
Presenting a solid pass rush and secondary, offenses in general don't enjoy an extensive amount of success versus Arizona to begin with. Combine San Francisco lacking an explosive passing attack and the Cardinals have a competitive advantage.
Well, this is why Vernon Davis is such a key component to the 'Niners offensive production on Monday. The Cardinals are weaker against the run, so it's reasonable to expect Arizona stacking the box to stuff Frank Gore.
In turn, Davis won't face double coverage too often which leads to one-on-one. Here, the more targets Davis gets the better, because drawing up a safety to Davis will open up Smith's other receivers downfield.
Thereafter, the Cardinals will honor the balance and Gore is presented with the opportunity to take over late.
John Skelton played fairly well on the road against the Minnesota Vikings. With a 69.4 completion percentage and 262 yards in Week 7, that was an important step in preparation for San Francisco.
After all, the 49ers rank No. 1 in pass defense by allowing only 173 pass yards per game. Additionally, San Francisco's opposing quarterback completion percentage enters this contest at just 56.9.
So it's no surprise that Skelton has his work cut out for him.
On the bright side, Skelton will possess greater confidence because of how well he thwarted the 'Niners at home in 2011. There, Arizona's gunslinger torched San Francisco for 282 yards, three touchdowns (two picks) and a 67.9 completion percentage.
The Cardinals won 21-19 which turned out to be only one of three regular season losses for San Francisco. Provided that Skelton is given minimal time to survey the field, he will utilize all levels and options to keep the 49ers off balance.
D'Anthony Batiste has started all seven games for the Cardinals this season.
Unfortunately, he is part of an offensive pass protecting unit that has allowed 35 sacks of Arizona's quarterbacks in 2012. And as John Skelton's blindside protector, Batiste faces an immense challenge in the 49ers front seven.
Guys like Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis are capable of rushing to his side and occasionally through his responsible gap. This is because Arizona's receiving corps is threatening enough to take over this game if Skelton has time to read his progressions.
In short, San Francisco must blitz relentlessly to limit the receivers' chances of developing routes. That forces Skelton to hold onto the ball and his linemen to block longer.
Batiste may be an experienced player at age 30, but considering how many sacks Arizona has given up he is part of a problem. On Monday, the 'Niners will constantly try to expose the Cardinals' greatest weakness.
Because the 49ers can be expected to get as much pressure as possible on John Skelton, Arizona must not abandon the running game.
And doing so will keep San Francisco off balance no matter what the production, because the impact of a ground game is always the most important. It keeps a defense honest and definitely allows a quarterback to feel more comfortable when under center.
Therefore, Justin Smith's impact alone will determine a lot for the 49ers.
He'll have to constantly draw a double-team against the run and beat every one-on-one situation when pass-rushing. As the game progresses, Smith stuffing the run and beating blocks will free up the linebackers to make more plays and provide Aldon Smith better mistmatches when rushing Skelton.
The 49ers are uncharacteristically weaker this season against the run than 2011, so Arizona's best odds of not losing the field position battle is to maintain balance. But with Smith darting through lanes, splitting blocks and wrecking backfield havoc during the first half, San Francisco gains a competitive edge in the second half.
This game will be about stopping the run, and the 49ers need to immediately improve at controlling the line. Otherwise the Cardinals will stick around and cause an upset.
Daryl Washington leads the Cardinals defense in tackles (62), sacks (six) and is tied for the lead in tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
He's a key reason why Arizona has endured much success against the pass, because his quarterback pressure creates turnover opportunities for the coverage players. Plus, with the ability to rush inside and out that impact puts edge defenders such as Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell against one-on-one blocks.
Factor in San Francisco ranking No. 1 in rush offense and averaging 176.6 per game and 5.9 per carry and Arizona must fill all possible running lanes. Frank Gore has been a beast all season long, and the 49ers also present Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick for differing situations.
Washington has to recognize any run up the middle or counter-action, because inside linebackers are the focal point of stopping the run. San Francisco is well-versed at sealing the second level, so beating any blocker to the point of attack is crucial.
As for play-action, the Cardinals' best bet is to blitz him early and often. Because allowing Alex Smith time when dropping back will make Arizona vulnerable between the zones and in man coverage.
Yes, David Akers because the 49ers' kicker has the leg to knock from anywhere on the field.
The key reason; however, is because of how well Arizona plays defense when backed up inside its own red zone. Week 1 against the Seahawks is a prime example, because Seattle had 1st-and-goal to go but failed to score a touchdown and win.
On the year, Arizona has allowed a touchdown only 42 percent of the time when the opponent is inside the red zone. Flip to San Francisco's offense and the 'Niners have scored a touchdown 57 percent of the time when inside the 20-yard-line.
But with an non-explosive passing game against a tough Cardinals defense that has yet to allow more than 21 points in a game, San Francisco's scoring opportunities will come at a premium. So when in field goal range of any kind, Akers must connect to give the 49ers momentum.
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