The Cardinals will clinch the NFC West if they win in San Francisco Monday night.
SAN FRANCISCO – Every training camp, on the night the players report, the Cardinals hold a team meeting to go over all the basics of the season.
The players hear about everything, from the drug testing schedule to preventive steps for staying healthy to media responsibilities. They also hear a list of goals from coach Ken Whisenhunt, which always has the same thing at the top.
It isn't winning the Super Bowl. It's winning the NFC West, because all success starts there.
Flash forward more than four months later. The Cards (8-4), defending NFC champions, stand at the precipice of their No. 1 goal. A road win against the 49ers on "Monday Night Football" will officially capture a second straight division crown.
"I'm not going to lie and say we don't know this game has the potential of having us clinch the division," guard Deuce Lutui said.
For a team that many expected to succumb to the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, the Cards have done anything but.
There remain other motivations for Monday. This has evolved into a bitter rivalry between the Niners and Cardinals, with many Cards acknowledging they don't like their counterparts. Seven of the last eight meetings have been determined by seven points or less (and the other was a mere 10-point game).
The Cards needed a goal-line stand last season on "Monday Night Football" in Arizona to preserve a 29-24 win, and then, in the regular-season opener at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cards couldn't manage a final touchdown – despite great field position – in losing, 20-16.
"We just didn't play well in that game," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.
The Cards got out to that bumpy 1-2 start going into their bye, while the 49ers were 3-1 and the darlings of the NFL. Since then, the Cards have gone 7-2, while the Niners have skidded to a 2-6 mark.
What's more, the Cardinals have shown signs they have taken giant steps forward since last season at this time – when they also had an early chance to clinch the division.
"What you want to do as an organization is, year in and year out, every game, people have to reckon with you and you have a chance to win a Super Bowl," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "That's why you play the game.
"Last year, we exceeded expectations. You want to build off of that. You want to do it year after year."
While the Cardinals have shown a new-found consistency, the 49ers are going through many of the same growing pains the Cards faced in recent years. They have been close in many games but been unable to finish, and any chance Monday night's game could have been a crucial showdown was lost when the 49ers couldn't put away Seattle last week in a 20-17 loss.
"It hurt a lot," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "All we did was make this harder on ourselves."
The 49ers are insisting this new matchup is still about chasing a faint playoff hope rather than just preventing the Cards from clinching at Candlestick -- "Our guys are fighting," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said. "I'm not sitting over here saying, 'Woe is me.' " – but realistically, that's all that can really be accomplished.
The Cardinals play the Lions and Rams the next two games before finishing with the Packers and riding off the rails like the team did last December isn't going to happen.
But the Cards would be best served by quickly finishing off that goal first talked about in Flagstaff so many weeks ago.
"It's more than just a division title, it's the 49ers and it's 'Monday Night Football,' " defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Still, we can seal the deal."
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