At 8-1, the San Francisco 49ers still have 5 NFC West match-ups remaining, with the next one this weekend against the Arizona Cardinals (3-6). With a 5-game lead on the division, the Niners will not ease up against division opponent; in fact, I believe coach Harbaugh will at it as another competitive challenge. The challenge in facing the underdog Cardinals is that the 49ers are not used to being the favorites, so complacency could work against them. That is why they vy to stay hungry.
It is noteworthy that Kevin Kolb has been out due to injury the past two games and will remain out for a third, giving John Skelton another go at quarterback. In the past two games for Arizona, Skelton has won them and been able to deliver the ball under pressure to his wide receivers, especially Larry Fitzgerald.
With Fitzgerald proving to be a threat with Skelton, the secondary, especially Carlos Rogers, will have to stick to their 'bend-don't-break' mentality. Fitzgerald is an elite weapon, similar to Calvin Johnson or Roddy White, in that he is big with tremendous hands and can go up and get the ball. San Francisco's secondary will have to deal with him similarly to how they dealt with Calvin Johnson, and not let him score -- preventing the big play.
The Cardinals defense didn't play half bad against the Eagles last week, who are on a rapid downward spiral. They played four quarters that day which was one quarter longer than the Eagles. I think they have some players that need to be spotlit, and those players include Darnell Dockett, Sam Acho, Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson.
Dockett is always a player to beware when you're playing the Cardinals defense. The year Arizona made their Super Bowl appearance, it was much to the performance of Dockett in the trenches that season. Campbell and Acho are both guys that can rush the passer, mostly coming from the edge. In that case, the 49ers will have to rely on Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and the backs in protection, including Bruce Miller. We've seen that if the Niners can keep Alex Smith upright, they have a shot to win.
Patrick Peterson is a freak athlete and talented position player. Whether he is on defense or special teams, San Francisco must always know where he is and what he's doing. On special teams, the 49ers have some real aces but on Sunday, they are going to need to get multiple helmets on Peterson because he can give you an ankle-breaker and take it the distance. He's got tremendous speed, so removing any potential big plays from him would be advisable.
There was a red flag on the status of Frank Gore regarding a tweaked knee, and the 49ers said they were doing an MRI but it was just precautionary. San Francisco expects Gore to start Sunday with Kendall Hunter backing him up. After last weeks win over the New York Giants, the league has seen the Niners are a balanced team that can attack a team in multiple ways. This should make it difficult for Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals to gameplan for the 49ers,
In addition to that, this isn't last year's 49ers team Whisenhunt is gameplanning for, even though he had trouble with that team too. While the 49ers can look at last years game footage between them, it will mean less when the Cardinals look at it because of the organizational overhaul that happened in San Francisco this offseason.
In this game, I would expect the 49ers to continue to dominant up front on both sides of the ball. This has been a consistent factor and it has kept the Niners in every game this season. Also, each week it seems coach Harbaugh is opening the playbook a little more for Alex Smith. I believe we could see more, as Smith is familiar with the Cardinals schemes and personnel. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman may allow him to open it up.
It will be exciting to see how the 49ers perform as the heavy favorite and if they can continue this reign of dominance. It's 7-straight wins, 31 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher and San Francisco still hasn't let up a rushing touchdown this season. If they make Arizona play 49er football, San Francisco should steamroll them.
Follow me on Twitter: @DeSimone80