49ers Rekindle NFC West Rivalry

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The 49ers already have a win against a John Skelton-quarterbacked team in 2011.

The result, however, only counts in the record books for the 2010 season.

On Jan. 2, the 49ers defeated then-rookie Skelton and the Cardinals 38-7 in a Week 17 home victory at Candlestick Park. Since that day, however, both teams have made significant changes to their respective organizations.

Nonetheless, Sunday's latest encounter between NFC West rivals will bring back those old competitive feelings.

Though the 49ers are 8-1, five games ahead of Arizona and Seattle at 3-6, any matchup in the division is a big test.

"Usually when you play a team over and over again, there's a respect for them, you end up not getting along with them," admitted 49ers second-year right tackle Anthony Davis. "It becomes just a friendly rivalry."

It's friendly in the sense that both sides are used to competing with each other, but both organizations made major overhauls this offseason.

The 49ers re-signed quarterback Alex Smith, who's won seven of his last eight starts at home, and paired him with 2011 coach of the year candidate Jim Harbaugh. The two have worked very well in their first season together, leading the team to its best start and first seven-game winning streak since 1997.

Arizona, on the other hand, traded for quarterback Kevin Kolb, who's been out of action the past two weeks with an injured right foot. And although the Cardinals lost six in a row after winning their season opener, the team hasn't thrown in the towel on 2011.

Instead, the angry birds have come out determined to turn their season around. So far, they've been doing it with Skelton, the second-year signal caller, at the helm.

In Kolb's absence, Skelton has won the Cardinals' last two games, including a come-from-behind road win in Philadelphia. Reports this week indicate that Kolb's doubtful to play on Sunday, but he has been listed as a limited practice participant in Arizona's official injury reports.

Skelton's emergence, however, has given a nice boost to the Cardinals. He's taking chances down the field with perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, something that impresses many on the 49ers defense, safety Donte Whitner included.

"He's reading the coverages well," Whitner said of Skelton. "He's doing a good job, being a young guy, making plays for them… They're not really a 3-6 football team. We have to be prepared for when they come in."

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also likes what he's seen from Skelton.

"This guy can throw the ball," Fangio said. "He's got an easy release … and in the last couple of weeks he's fallen in love with Fitzgerald, which is smart on his part."

Skelton will have to be smart against an opportunistic 49ers defense, a unit that leads the NFL forcing 21 turnovers this season.

The 49ers will be looking to create big plays while feeding off the team's raucous home crowd.

"Crowd support is always a big thing," Whitner shared. "Whenever you can make noise to disrupt another team's offense and not allow them to have good communication on the field, it really helps us on the defensive side."

In the end, it all goes back to competing.

Facing a familiar foe like the Cardinals should help in that regard.

"I love the competitiveness of the NFL," Davis added. "You can't get challenges like this on a weekly basis except for maybe the military. You have to embrace the grind of it and the competition aspect. When guys talk, you know you're going to get the best from the other guy and you have to thrive off of that."

According to quarterback Alex Smith, Davis is the most boisterous player in the 49ers huddle.

Teammates thrive off it, too.

"It's just how I play the game, how I've always been since I played in high school and in college," Davis revealed. "I don't do it purposely, I'm just playing football, trying to get the guys going. I let them know how I'm feeling; maybe they feed off of it."

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, like Smith, enjoys what Davis brings to the 49ers offense.

"I don't want to use the word skyrocketed," Roman said, "but he's playing at a much higher level. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds improvement. That's what we're seeing and we need to continue to see it."

Davis credits the development to hard work.

"I'm not surprised we're playing better or that I'm playing better. It's just hard work. Don't they say, 'Nobody ever regretted hard work, right?' So… I've been working hard."

As loud as Davis, or the 49ers crowd gets Sunday, still won't matter if the 49ers don't handle their business on the field.

This game represents two contests in the win/loss column, and everyone in the locker room knows it.

"It's very important," Whitner concluded. "You win your division, you go to the playoffs. Everybody in our division is really gunning for us because of our record. And you have to understand, whenever you play a division game, its two games.

"You can make up ground or put a lot of distance between the teams behind you and that's what we can do this weekend."

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