Warner ready to lead Cardinals back to playoffs
SAN FRANCISCO – Kurt Warner is riding high. He beat Brett Favre and earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. His Arizona Cardinals are on the cusp of clinching a second consecutive NFC West crown.
What better time to do it than on the national stage Monday night against division rival San Francisco – and in the 49ers’ stadium to boot?
Warner would be thrilled, yet he’s not getting too far ahead of himself. Even if Arizona’s dominant victory over Favre and the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday is still fresh in football fans’ minds.
“Whatever. It is what it is. We’ve been there before. You go to the Super Bowl you have a little national spotlight on you,” Warner said. “But it’s one game and we’ve been there before where everybody jumps on, and then we don’t do what we’re supposed to do and everybody jumps off. Who really cares about that stuff? The bottom line is we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. We’ve got to keep staying consistent.”
The Cardinals (8-4) have won three of their last four in Candlestick Park and would like nothing more than to avenge their 20-16 loss to the Niners in the season opener on Sept. 13.
Despite San Francisco’s record, despite bleak playoff hopes and all the tough losses, coach Mike Singletary considers Monday night’s matchup with the defending NFC champions a spotlight game for his team.
Yet the 49ers (5-7) had hoped for weeks this game might be for a playoff berth. Instead, the Cardinals have a commanding three-game division lead.
“I want to win this game Monday night,” Singletary said. “I want people to see that the 49ers are a team that’s out here in the West that really isn’t the same team. Something is happening out here and hopefully we can show that on Monday.”
Slowing down Warner and Arizona’s offense could prove a tough chore.
Warner threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns in the 30-17 victory over Minnesota, showing that his Arizona team might be poised for another special playoff run after reaching the Super Bowl last season.
Warner, who topped the 3,000-yard mark for the season last week, said afterward the win showed “that we can play with anybody, we can play with the big dogs.”
The Cardinals certainly will have plenty of motivation.
“I can’t wait for this one. We don’t care anything about winning the division. That’s what some people are talking about, but this game’s personal, and they know it, too,” Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “We’re looking forward to that. They don’t care about us beating Minnesota, we don’t care about them losing to Seattle. When we line up we know this is going to be one physical game. We’re going to be ready, and I know they will be, too.”
A lot has changed since that first meeting three months ago. Most notably, San Francisco switched quarterbacks from Shaun Hill to Alex Smith and that move led to a more pass-oriented offense. That could present a challenge for Arizona’s defense, which ranks 30th against the pass.
Smith, too, is coming off an impressive outing. The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick threw for a career-high 310 yards in last Sunday’s loss at Seattle. One of his touchdown strikes went to tight end Vernon Davis, who is enjoying a career season. It was Davis’ 10th TD catch, a franchise record by a tight end.
“The guy’s got 10 touchdowns. That’s incredible in the NFL,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
The 49ers, who have endured a franchise-worst six straight losing seasons, understand why it would mean so much to Singletary to win this one.
“I believe in everything coach believes in,” said Davis, whose sure-handed play has been a major bright spot. “That’s how you get to where you want to go, when you believe. You’ve got to believe in it in order for it to work. I think we can do whatever we want to do. We just do it. We’re out there and we’re making it happen. We’ve just got to finish it.”
Davis had six catches for a career-high 111 yards against the Seahawks, but it wasn’t enough to avoid yet another heartbreaking road loss.
San Francisco hasn’t won away from home since the game at Arizona, losing five straight by a combined 19 points.
“We’re getting there,” punter Andy Lee said. “It’s tough to turn things around sometimes. But we’ve got everybody we need. You’ve got to learn how to win. It’ll come. I have all the confidence in the world in these guys.”
These teams haven’t split their season series since each winning at home in 2003. The Cardinals have won six of the last nine meetings, sweeping the season series in 2005, ’06 and ’08. San Francisco won both matchups in 2004 and ’07.
Arizona is still upset about how the season began.
“It’s one that got away, but we’ve got an opportunity to redeem that come Monday night,” Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task at hand. They’re not going to lay down for us.”
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