Head coach Jim Harbaugh, quarterback Alex Smith and the rest of the 49ers know they're in for a battle this Monday night in Arizona. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
The NFC West has become one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
The 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams all have physical teams with strong defenses and big hitters.
So, after a pounding, bruising 13-6 victory over Seattle in their last game, the 5-2 Niners know they’re in for more of the same this Monday night in Arizona against the Cardinals.
“We expect these games in the NFC West to be 60 minutes of physical football,” 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley told reporters this week.
It may be another low-scoring game Monday, similar to the Niners’ game with the Seahawks. Oddsmakers have made the 49ers eight-point favorites.
Though Arizona started out hot, winning its first four games before losing its next three, the Cardinals are solid on defense. Arizona is No. 4 in the league in scoring defense (giving up 16.9 points per game) and No. 7 in yardage allowed (312.1 yards per game).
San Francisco is No. 1 in yardage allowed (272.3 yards per game) and No. 2 in points allowed (14.3 per game).
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt expect a game dominated by defense.
“All of the teams in the NFC West have a defense that’s strong, that’s very physical,” Whisenhunt said this week. “That’s a great quality for our division to show to the rest of the league. I know that it will be a physical game … it always is when we play the 49ers.”
Said Harbaugh: “They play outstanding defense.”
The Niners know Arizona can be particularly tough playing at home, too, where the Cards beat them last season – one of only three losses San Francisco had in a 13-3 season. In that victory, Arizona sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith five times.
The game promises to be an emotional battle, too, with Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell turning up the heat this week by saying he can’t stand the 49ers.
“I really felt like I could have had four sacks last week and I had zero,” Calais said in a radio interview this week. “So I gotta make up for that this week, especially going against the 49ers who I really hate with a passion. I can’t wait to go out there and stick it to them. Alex Smith I’ve gotten down a few times so I know he’s thinking about me a little bit. So I can’t wait to get out there.”
As Mike Sando of ESPN notes, Calais’ teammates, Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson, also have taken verbal shots at the Niners in the past.
San Francisco may come out on offense and try to establish its running game, something it did well against Seattle. While Smith recently has been in a passing slump (since injuring his finger against the Giants two games ago), the 49ers ground game has been solid – and Arizona’s run defense has been weak, allowing 331 yards on the ground the past two games (5.5 yards per carry).
Meanwhile, while Arizona has been able to run the ball – and is dangerous through the air with one of the NFL’s best wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald – quarterback John Skelton has been erratic, throwing 17 interceptions in 349 attempts (one every 20.5 throws).
One area in which Arizona is very dangerous, however, is in its punt return game. Returner Patrick Peterson returned four punts for scores last season. This season he’s been shut out – so far.
The Niners’ Smith has just one prediction about Monday’s game: It’s going to be a close game all the way to the end.
“I feel like every time we play each other these are just physical battles,” he told reporters this week. “Most of the time they are coming down to the end, and they are hard-fought games.”