A 49ers win on Sunday would give the team eight consecutive victories and their fifth-straight win over the Arizona Cardinals, matching their longest winning streak against their NFC West counterparts. The 49ers have only played one divisional game thus far; Sunday's home meeting with the Cardinals is the first of five divisional games left on the schedule. There's always a competitive atmosphere when both teams play, let's take a look at five key storylines for the 1:05 p.m. kick-off.
1. Hidden Yardage
Quarterback conversation seems to be the topic of the week, but both teams will need to rely on special teams yardage to set up their offenses first. The hidden yardage supplied for the 49ers by return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. on kicks and punts has been a big plus in the team's 8-1 start. Ginn ranks second in the NFC and third in the NFL with a 29.0 average on his kickoff returns. Ginn's 12.5-yard average on punt returns ranks third in the NFC and fourth in the NFL, too. With solid special teams play, the 49ers average starting position at home, the 34.1-yard line, ranks first in the NFL. The same type of impact can be seen from Arizona's return tandem of rookie Patrick Peterson on punts and LaRod Stephens-Howling on kickoffs. Peterson had a game-winning punt return in Arizona's overtime win over St. Louis in Week 9. The No. 5 overall pick is second in the NFL with a 17.6 average on his 25 returns. "He's doing a great job as a rookie stepping up for his team," said 49ers safety C.J. Spillman, who's totaled six special teams tackles this season. "It's about being smart with him. Don't do anything stupid to lose your leverage, allowing him opportunities to make big plays." Stephens-Howling has a kick return for a touchdown in each of the past two seasons, including two kick returns for scores in 2010. The shifty running back is averaging a career-low 23.7 yards on his 22 returns, but is always a dangerous option for Arizona.
2. QB Conundrum
Back to the QB talk. Alex Smith has impressed the masses with his 242-yard passing performance against the Giants last week, but so has his projected opposing quarterback for this Sunday. While Cardinals starter Kevin Kolb has been out the last two weeks with a foot injury, second-year signal caller John Skelton has led Arizona to consecutive wins. Kolb has been limited in practice, but the 49ers aren't as focused on the quarterback as they are on the offensive scheme. "Regardless of who's at quarterback, (we have to) understand their formations, understand what they're trying to do as an offensive unit," said 49ers linebacker Joe Staley, "We have to come out and play." Skelton's 315 passing yards against the Philadelphia Eagles last week stood as Arizona's highest passing output of the season. Skelton, however, threw two interceptions last week. He'll need to be smart with the football against a 49ers defense which leads the NFL having forced 21 turnovers. Furthermore, the 49ers are 7-1 when winning the turnover battle.
3. Giving Defenses Fitz
Skelton's emergence is directly tied to the production of his star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The eighth-year veteran has posted a career high of 17.6 yards per catch this season and has led Arizona in receiving yards in six of the team's nine games. Fitzgerald caught two touchdowns from Skelton last week, and had a 37-yard catch down to the Eagles' 1-yard line to set up Skelton's third touchdown of the game, a game-winning 5-yard pass to Early Doucet. The 49ers will have a concentrated effort to stop Fitzgerald, who lines up all over the field, but as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio stressed, "You're not going to be able to have two guys assigned to him each and every play." The 49ers defense has broken up a league-high 66 passes this season and will continue to be tested against one of the league's best perimeter player this Sunday.
4. Pro Bowl Push
Pro Bowl voting lasts through Dec. 19, but several 49ers continue to make their cases for inclusion into the league's annual All-Star game. All the games leading up to the deadline serve as opportunities to win over voters. With the first wave of fan votes being released, punter Andy Lee was the only 49er in the lead for his respective position. But with several opportunities to vote for the key players on the roster, players on the 49ers can make their cases with quality performances down the stretch. One of the players who should be considered for the Pro Bowl, running back Frank Gore, is hopeful he'll be able to showcase his skills this Sunday. The running back, who is seventh in the NFL with 782 rushing yards, rushed for 0 yards last week on six carries. Gore said he hyperextended his knee against the Giants which caused him to play only one snap in the second half. "I'll be ready to play on Sunday," Gore said this week. "I want to be out there, I want to be out there bad." If unable to take the bulk of the rushing responsibilities, rookie Kendall Hunter and second-year runner Anthony Dixon could fill in tandem to handle the rushing duties. Gore's absence, in theory, could call for more plays on the perimeter from the likes of Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Braylon Edwards and company. That could always help with the Pro Bowl votes, too.
5. Spark The Stick
When the 49ers defense is on the field, crowd noise is always welcomed at Candlestick Park. In fact, the defense thrives off of it. "It really bothers offenses because they use a lot of vocals and when they have to use hand signals," explained safety Donte Whitner. "Teams usually catch on to it or they might miss them, they run the wrong route, it causes turnovers or fumbles, all types of things like that can happen from crowd noise. It's big. Hopefully we can start that for ourselves with our crowd noise and excitement." A strong contingent of Faithful support should make its way to The Stick for the latest chapter in the 49ers-Cardinals rivalry. "Ain't no doubt about that," Spillman said. "It's a great rivalry between us. The games we've played in the past, it gives us an opportunity to see where we're at in our conference, and it's just another great opportunity. We're winning and things are on the up and up. It's a great feeling to have them behind you every game."