Once again, Cards look to not stumble out of the gate

Note: This column appears in the 9/5 issue of the Peoria Times

One year ago in this very space, before the Arizona Cardinals opened up the season against the San Francisco 49ers -- which they apparently do every year -- I stressed that that game would be a hint of things to come for the season. I was wrong in that the Cardinals lost the game, but rebounded to finish a solid 8-8. I was right in that the loss, along with yet another brutal defeat at the hands of the same 49ers, prevented them from going to the playoffs.

So here we are again. The same two teams opening up their 2008 seasons against each other. And I feel the same way. This game just means so, so much for the Arizona Cardinals. These are the games that the Cards are going to have to win if they have any hopes of building upon the foundation they laid down last season.

There are plenty of “previews” for this game that can be found elsewhere, and even though these two teams aren’t necessarily NFL heavyweights, I’ve decided to do a “Tale of the Tape” for Sunday’s crucial game. I hope you are ready for some extraordinary insight.

Quarterback controversy: The Cardinals boast the league’s most recognizable QB dilemma, which was ultimately (or not) decided when Kurt Warner beat out Matt Leinart for the starting gig. The 49ers, however, have the most shocking QB situation, in which former first overall draft pick Alex Smith was beat out by (drumroll please)…J.T. O’Sullivan. For the Cards we have an elderly two-time MVP beating out a playboy and potential bust. San Fran has possibly the biggest bust of the decade backing up everybody’s favorite watering hole. Advantage: Cardinals.

This is J.T. O'Sullivan...as if you didn't already know

Running backs: Sometimes I feel like watching Edgerrin James run is like waiting for water to boil. But he’s been consistent, and it looks like Tim Hightower may provide a spark in the backfield every now and then. In Frank Gore the 49ers have a guy who lacks consistency, but can be great when he’s on his game, and healthy. But with the pass-happy Mike Martz as new offensive coordinator, Gore will probably see fewer carries. And by "fewer carries” I mean two carries. Slight Edge (pun intended): Cardinals.

Wide receivers: The enduring storyline of this game and possibly the season -- it’s what everybody is talking about, even more than Brett Favre and the Jets and even the upcoming presidential election -- is new 49er wide receiver Bryant Johnson facing his former team. All eyes will be on Johnson. Or not. Probably not. Either way, there is Kurt Warner throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. And then there is J.T. O’Sullivan throwing to Johnson and Isaac Bruce. Even Kurt Warner can’t believe that Isaac Bruce is still playing football. Advantage: Cardinals.

The 49er's #1 wide receiver...in 2008

Defense: Believe it or not -- ya’ know, because they are not a good football team -- the 49ers defense is not bad. Patrick Willis is one of the league’s best young linebackers, and Nate Clements is a playmaker in the secondary. In 2007, the 49ers ranked ahead of the Cards in pass defense. But the Cardinals last season were top-10 in the NFL against the run, and were well ahead of San Francisco in total yards allowed. And it looks as though the Cardinals defensively in ’08 will only be better, and healthier. Advantage: Cardinals.

Pressure: The 49ers -- and forgive me if I mentioned this earlier -- are starting J.T. O’Sullivan at quarterback on Sunday. They won five games last year. Expectations are not necessarily high. The Cardinals have benched a first-round draft pick because they believe they can win now. They have arguably the most talented team in franchise history, are looking to erase years of futility, and are facing the team that pretty much ruined their 2007 season. But other than that, they’re carefree and fancy-free! Advantage: 49ers.

So there you have it. The Cardinals are better in virtually every major facet of football than the 49ers, but they have a lot to lose. Once again, one thing they definitely don’t want to lose is this game.

If a "49er" was a fish, I'd have a much better caption