To suggest that the Arizona Cardinals struggle on Monday Night Football would be an understatement. At times, it feels like the Cardinals are cursed. In preparing for their upcoming game against the San Francisco 49ers the team will be unusually aware that history is not on their side.
Since arriving in Arizona, the Cardinals are a pitiful 1-7 on Monday night, with many of those losses have been at the hands of the 49ers.
The Cardinals Monday Night Football performances have been something of a horror show, which is perhaps appropriate, playing as they are just two nights before Halloween.
In 1999 against the 49ers, the Cardinals lost 24-10, and ended the career of Steve Young in a single night. In 2007, the San Francisco 49ers scored with just 22 ticks left on the clock, sealing a Cardinals loss. In 2010, the Cardinals faced the 49ers again, leading to Derek Anderson's now infamous "Nothing's funny to me" tirade, after he was seen laughing on the sidelines during a humiliating 24-9 blowout.
Sadly for the Cardinals, that is not even their most embarrassing or memorable MNF tirade. In 2006, The Cardinals somehow managed to blow a 20 point lead against the Chicago Bears, allowing Chicago to come back and win 24-23. After the game, then head coach Dennis Green gave his "The Bears are who we thought they were” rant, which was considered by most to be the game that sealed his fate, and ended his Cardinals career, though he would remain head coach until the end of the season.
Yeah, MNF has not been kind to the Cardinals.
And yet there remain a few in the organization who will remember 2008, and a Monday Night game against the San Francisco 49ers at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Cardinals had been lauded early in the season but after falling to 4-3, had been called pretenders, and few considered them to be the real deal, even against a struggling 49ers team who they had previously beaten in Week 1. However, the Cardinals toppled the 49ers, 29-24 in a game which cemented their status as NFL contenders, setting up a 9-7 finish, NFC championship, and narrowly missing out on Super Bowl victory.
Most of that 2008 team have since moved on or retired from football, but the pillars of that team, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, and safety Adrian Wilson, and many of the coaching staff remain, and will be desperate for another taste of the glory which came to them in 2008.
The Cardinals are by no means favorites coming into this week's game. Their defense and special teams can keep them in any game—though kicker Jay Feely will need to find some form against San Francisco if he hopes to keep his job—but it is their offense which remains a huge question mark.
Their offensive line—who are on pace to give up 80 sacks this season—will once again make it difficulty to build a commanding lead. However, it's important to remember that the 49ers pass rush has not been at it's best thus far in 2012. Though it has generally got plenty of pressure on the quarterback, it has more often than not failed to finish the job, recording just 11 sacks through seven games.
If the Cardinals can mix up run and pass as they did early against the Vikings, keep the tempo high and secure the ball, especially in the San Francisco half, they stand a chance.
John Skelton is well known as a late-bloomer in games, a 4th quarter quarterback. The reason for this seems to be that the Cardinals are often playing from behind in their hurry up offense during this time. This suits Skelton, as the simplified playbook and read-and-react decision making prevents Skelton and the Cardinals from over-thinking things too much. It also gets the ball out of Skelton's hands quicker, a real benefit considering the struggles of the offensive line.
The Cardinals need to adopt this offensive scheme from the get-go against the 49ers, and their tough defense. Keeping the tempo high, and using play action and draw plays will keep the offense from becoming predictable and prevent the 49ers from selling out to catch the QB. They must also keep running to the outside with Stevens-Howling, and up the gut with William Powell, if they hope to succeed, and not give up on this if it doesn't result in immediate gains.
The Cardinals defense remains one of the better units in the league today, not having given up more than 21 points all season. They rank 4th in points surrendered, averaging just 16.9 points per game, and 4th in passing yards given up, at just over 190 yards per game, on average. Though they have struggled against the run, ranking 20th overall with 120.9 yards per game, on average, that rarely results in touchdowns, giving up just 24 points on the ground thus far.
The team seem prepared for the 49ers offensive scheme, which appears to consist of a pounding running game, and hoping to catch the secondary napping, and look to have the necessary playbook to limit and contain, if not completely stop the 49ers game plan.
All in all, the game is likely to be a defensive master class, not a blow out, with the winner being determined by the team who gives up fewest turnovers and foolish penalties, and commits most fully to a varied and balanced offensive playbook.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the 49ers disciplined defense, and efficient offense has the inside track in this game, but in a heated rivalry game, anything can happen, and the ruling out the Cardinals would be a dangerous mistake for anyone to make.