The Cardinals and 49ers kick off the season at University of Phoenix Stadium, which will forevermore in this space be known simply as Cardinals Stadium, 'The Nest,' or UoP Stadium.
This is a series that has been close and entertaining since their first matchup in 1951 (A Cards win).
Example: What long time Cardinals fan can forget 'The Comeback' in the Big Red's inaugural season in the Valley? This was the 6-4 Young/Rice/Craig, etc.. Champion 49ers against the 6-4 underdog Cardinals in a classic at Sun Devil Stadium, the Cards old stomping grounds on ASU's campus.
Trailing 23-0 late in the 3rd quarter, Cards QB Neil Lomax hooked up with WR Roy 'Jetstream' Green on a 35 yard TD pass to narrowed it to 23-7, and ignite the rally.
In a fast and furious 4th quarter, following an Al DelGreco FG, Lomax hit Ernie Jones, to close the gap to 23-17. Then, as the November sun was setting in the west, and on the game, Lomax hit Green in the corner of the endzone on a nine-yard TD pass that will forever live in Cardinals lore!
The Cards and 49ers have been very evenly matched team over the years. If fact, it wasn't that long ago that the Big Red actually had the series advantage over the Niners. No, REALLY!
But San Francisco dominated the early 90's through the early 2000's, winning five straight before the teams later joined divisions and now, of course, play twice a year.
It took last years series sweep for the cards to close that gap to within 3 games, which now stands at a 19-16 49ers advantage.
This is a big game for both teams (obligatory cliche')!
The Cards need to get off to a good start if they want to avoid playing catchup later, as they have a rough first half schedule before things ease up a bit.
This is a game they should win. They have been together longer. They have better players at most 'skill' positions. They're at home. They'll have just dropped their first Conference Title banner since FDR was in office.
They'll have 65,000 extremely enthusiastic fans providing what is fast becoming one of the best home field advantages in the NFL. And they're just better overall.
But as they say, this is why they play the games.
So, I guess we'll soon find out just how important the pre-season is as far as timing and rhythm.
Everyone knows that the final score, wins and losses means absolutely zero as far as the regular season is concerned.
Those who still aren't convinced can look no further back than last season, when the 0-16 Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason.
Be that as it may, there is some concern among the masses as to whether or not the Cardinals are 'ready' after a preseason that showed little on the scoreboard. Especially from the (albeit injury plagued) first string offense.
It's still not known, and won't be until game time, whether or not WR Anquan Boldin will play or not. Boldin's hamstring, which kept him out of the final two preseason games, will be a game time decision. Both he and coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed to agree that it wouldn't make sense to chance losing a few games, just to play in this one. But anyone that knows either, knows that Q will be on the field unless he really can't play.
WR Larry Fitzgerald will be out here, even though there were murmurs that he strained something or another in practice. I think that was a rumor started by a 'Madden curse' promoter. Steve Breaston played a little against Denver in the final preseason game, and has practiced this week. It looks like he can start if Boldin can't.
Warner makes it clear that while he 'wished' the first team offense got into a rhythm in preseason, he's not too concerned by it. Ditto coach Whiz.
The guess here is that Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/assistant head coach/running game quasi-play caller Russ Grimm will (all together now) try and establish the run early.
One of the amazing things about the NFL is that, you could be a team that's in the top two in passing offense, the bottom 2 in rushing offense, have no backs from the previous season amassing more than 600 yards, and coaches will INSIST that you 'need a good/great running game to win in this league'.
Now don't get me wrong. A solid running game is wonderful! It certainly comes in handy if you want to hold on to fourth-quarter lead and/or take time off the clock. its great when you can get a guy (or in the Cards case, duo) churning out 4+ yards per carry and 150 or more yards per game. It's even nice to have if for no other reason than to set up play-action. But alas, expect to see the Cardinals try and establish the run early.
Tim Hightower will get the start. He's been practicing like his hair is on fire, and knows he has a fine young back behind him in the pecking order.
If Hightower and rookie Chris 'Beanie' Wells can get going,..and get the safeties to move up, it could get ugly in a hurry for the 49ers. Especially in 3 and 4 receiver sets. Larry Fitzgerald lined up on the right side throughout the preseason. He'll be moving around a lot now, and setting up matchup issues for the 49ers CB's, now that it's for real.
That's a good sized 'if', when you consider that SF All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis will be just beyond the DL, and he rarely misses a tackle. A tenacious defender and tackler, Willis will be mirroring whoever lines up behind Warner. That's not something either RB looks forward to.
As noted in my 49ers preview, the 49ers play conventional 3-4 defense. With Willis, former first-rounder Manny Lawson, former Bengals first-rounder Takeo Spikes, and Parys Haralson, who had 8 sacks last year, make up a formidable group.
Expect to see little passes in the flat to spread out those LBs, especially to the right side manned by Cards would be pulling guard Deuce Lutui and tackle Levi Brown.
Haralson played well against the Cardinals last year and had two sacks in one game going against Mike Gandy. You may see some two TE sets if Gandy cant keep him away from Warner.
Its hard to really say what to expect from the Cardinals passing game without knowing the availability of Anquan Boldin. Few in the league are better than Q at catching the ball over the middle, or just shooting across on a short slant, and tuning it into a big play. He may not make as big a difference as Fitz, but he does things that Steve Breaston just cant do.
The Niners have an improving secondary, but they aren't great by any stretch. I do expect that Warner and his receivers, ..whoever they may be, will get into that elusive rhythm they so missed in the preseason. Warner can put the ball pretty much anywhere he wants when he's 'on', and there's no reason to think he won't be unless he's having hip-related issues.
I don't see a 100 yard rushing game out of either RB, but I DO expect to see between 100-120 yards as a team. That may not sound like much to many teams, but it would be just fine for the Cardinals.
Afterall, this is a team that actually uses the pass to set up the run. Sometimes not by choice, and almost always when they're ahead.
In other words, the Cards are that rare team that 'needs to' establish the passing game.
The 49ers, as you might expect, will be handing the ball off to RB Frank Gore a lot. That's what they've done for the past few seasons, ..back to 2006 when Gore ran for over 1,500 yards.
But this year, they got him some help that will hopefully rejuvenate a guy that has as much talent as almost any back in the NFC, but has watched his numbers dwindle since bursting onto the NFL scene that year.
Drafting Glen Coffee in the third round will give Gore some much needed rest. Coffee tied for the NFL lead in rushing during the exhibition season with 249 yards, so the kid can play. He won't get a lot of carries unless he does something dramatic.
Cards DT Darnell Dockett looks to make a name for himself in 2009, and will be going against RT Adam Snyder, and should be able to cause some problems in the 49ers backfield.
Coach Mike Singletary gave QB Shaun Hill the starters nod. Hill was behind center as the Niners finished the season 5-2 last year, and is actually 7-3 in games he's started there.
He's not spectacular, but he can make plays, and give the Cardinals fits early in their last meeting.
Since the Cards won't have to worry about rookie first round pick Michael Crabtree (unsigned) at WR, their hope is that they can keep Issac Bruce and Josh Morgan in check in single coverage, allowing Wilson to cheat up a little bit and make some noise in the backfield.
Morgan scored twice against the cards last year, and while he's not Crabtree, he can play. Bruce is still talented, but has slowed down and wouldn't start for many teams.
Expect to see the Niners run the ball. And run it some more. And continue to run it.
The coaching staff knows its offensive limitations, and knows that the only real shot the Niners have is to use up clock and keep the ball out of the hands of the Cardinals explosive offense, and avoid a track meet. They just don't have the horses to compete in that kind of game at this point.
The Brady Hunch:
I expect the Cardinals to pull out a win at home. In fact, if I were a betting man (which I'm not), I would take the Cards and give the 6.5 points.
Many Cards/49ers games come down to the wire, including last year's thriller on Monday Night Football where the Cards pulled out a 29-24 victory with a huge goalline stand to end the game.
The last time the Cards played a game that matters on this field was the NFC Championship game against the Eagles last January.
They will drop the 'NFC Championship' banner from the rafters before the game, and the crowd should be outta their minds!
Even though this is far from a typical welcome into a new season for the Big Red, I have the feeling the players will relish in it, and this will actually help them get together in a hurry, especially on offense.
The guess here is that Boldin will play. If I were the coach, I would hold him on the sideline, and insert him as needed.
But Q will want to be on the field, and coach Whiz isn't about to stop him unless he really shows potential problems in pregame warmups.
If Boldin plays, and plays like Anquan Boldin can play, I expect the Cards to win this game by 10 points or more. Even without him, I expect them to cover that spread, and start the season on a good note.
The First BRADY HUNCH in 7+ years! Woooo Hooooo!