It's a great rivalry in the mind of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
San Francisco is set to play the Arizona Cardinals on Monday in the first of two matchups between NFC West foes. With Round 1 set to take place on a primetime stage, no less, Smith is ready for another hard-fought game between two teams with plenty of history.
The 49ers are 4-1 all-time against the Cardinals on "Monday Night Football." San Francisco has faced its rivals from the desert in four of the team's last six outings on Monday night, too.
"When you know a team this well, you play them that often, twice a year, year-in and year-out, their personnel," Smith explained. "The games, I just feel like naturally you rarely see blowouts, either way. The games always are coming down to the wire, just the way it is. They're always hard-fought, there's just so much history there. The teams don't like each other, a little more personal in that sense, so tough."
One of Smith's five losses in his last 23 regular season starts was on the road last season in Arizona. If the Cardinals are able to defeat the 49ers at home in back-to-back seasons, the teams would be tied at 5-3 at the end of Week 8.
Smith understands the importance of this week's challenge, but wouldn't place it above any other previous games against Arizona.
"Every year is huge," the 49ers quarterback said. "They're all big. This one's the biggest because it's the one right in front of us. I know that's not what you guys want to hear, but it's the truth. This is the next big game. It's our second division game. These division games are so important."
Five of San Francisco's remaining nine games will be played in the division, too.
"It's a chance to get another division win and another win," said Smith who fill face his third consecutive defense ranked among the top-nine in fewest points allowed per game.
When facing stingy New York and Seattle defenses in back-to-back weeks, Smith threw one touchdown pass and was intercepted four times. He also played both games with an injured middle finger on his throwing hand, but said the finger is getting better every week.
"It's just something that you deal with," said the quarterback with a 93.9 quarterback rating this season. "Not something that I think about a whole lot out there."
Smith remains confident heading into the Monday night matchup.
"My confidence is no different than it was a week ago, than it was a month ago, than it was a year ago. No different," he said. "Games change week-in, week-out. I think there are people that expect the same thing over and over again. That was a good defense we played on Thursday night. We played them on a short week. You look what they did versus a lot of good quarterbacks this year, look what they did against [Packers QB] Aaron [Rodgers]. They beat [Patriots QB] Tom Brady. Look what they did against [Cowboys QB Tony] Romo."
With extra time to prepare for Arizona, Smith recognizes the same 3-4 scheme being utilized by Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but added that the defense has changed slightly over time.
"It's a fine line," Smith said. "You play the game, maybe they're going to do something different or they stay the same."
In recent weeks, teams have given extra defensive attention to one of Smith's preferred targets, tight end Vernon Davis.
The two connected on four touchdown passes in the first three weeks of the season but have not found the end zone since. Davis was held without a catch last week in a win over Seattle. It was his first time without a reception since 2008.
Smith knows the playmaker he has in Davis, but also doesn't want to force the issue if the defense is leaving other weapons uncovered in the passing game.
"He's a guy we're always trying to get involved," Smith said. "It's the truth. Always, he's a focal point for us. You never know how the game is going to unfold though. Our job's not to go out there and force things, but let it come to us and hopefully we can get him the ball."
Smith also has one of the best rushing offenses of his eight-year career at his disposal. Utilizing Frank Gore in a key divisional matchup remains an emphasis for the 49ers, especially with the consistent play of the 49ers offensive line.
"They've been playing great, run and pass," Smith said of his linemen. "Just been playing great. They really set the tone for us, more than anything I think, the way they go out there. Everything kind of starts with them. The last few weeks, really hats off to them the way they've been getting things done, especially last Thursday in the run game."