Cardinals-49ers Preview

Chris FarmerCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 15:  Steve Breaston #15 of the Arizona Cardinals catches a pass for a touchdown in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium on November 15, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Seahawks 31-20.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

These teams faced off in the season opener at Arizona which San Francisco won 20-16.

As many of these early season game results typically do, it set off gloom and doom forecasts for the Cardinals while promoting a 49ers turn-around season scenario from the masses.

My oh my how time changes everything.

San Francisco enters this contest all but eliminated from the playoffs at 5-7, while the Cardinals are riding a new found maturity level and resilience unmatched in team history to a commanding 8-4 record.

In Game One, the 49ers ran the ball often but not well, as Frank Gore was impressively bottled up by the Cardinals. He gained an alarmingly meager 30 yards on 22 carries, which turned out to be one of the brighter spots of the game for the Cardinals.

Shaun Hill was the QB in that game and he too was held in check for the most part, except for the game winning drive—the Achilles heel for the Cardinals. Hill passed for 72 of his game total 209 yards on that touchdown drive.

Fast forwarding to the present, and Gore has only received 32 carries in the last three weeks as the 49ers have moved away from a rush-first team to a pass-first one.

Former overall No.1 draft pick and perceived bust Alex Smith has apparently resurrected his career with some strong play, and Shaun Hill as the No.1 QB seems like a distant memory.

Arizona's offense was out of sync in that first game, which in retrospect seems fitting considering the team was adjusting to life after Todd Haley, last year's offensive coordinator who left the club in the off-season to become head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

No disrespect to Ken Whisenhunt, who built his career on the strength of his ability to call plays, but clearly that first game was the first part of an adjustment period for the team.

Also, third receiver Steve Breaston was inactive that day and his speed to stretch the field was missed, while Anquan Boldin was gimpy at best.

Fast forwarding to the present, Breaston and Boldin appear to be fully healed and the Cardinals have the look of a dangerous team that could make a deep run in the playoffs.

Their inconsistencies of the past are being replaced with more frequent occurrences of dominating play.

Arizona continues to improve its rushing attack, which is creating the kind of balance that successful teams need. Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells have combined to average 4.1 yards per carry, up from 3.5 the team averaged last season, and the Cardinals have lifted themselves out of the cellar in rushing yards per contest, up to 26th from dead last one season ago.

The Cardinals defense is tied for third in the NFL in sacks, tied for tenth in interceptions, and has become less prone to giving up big plays.

This is the 49ers Super Bowl. They would like nothing more than to play spoiler to a Cardinals team that could wrap up its second consecutive division title with a win.

For the Cardinals, their challenge is to stave off an emotional let-down after thrashing one of the best teams in the league last weekend.

They want to extract revenge upon their divisional foes, but it will not come without a fight.