Anquan Boldin and the Cardinals were not at full strength the first time the Cardinals and 49ers met earlier this season.
It seems like a lifetime ago, when the 49ers came into University of Phoenix Stadium and left an ugly feeling in the pit of the Cardinals' collective stomachs.
The ebbs and flows of the NFL season have swayed both teams since that season opener. The Cards righted their season, took control of their road schedule, endured Kurt Warner's concussion and then toppled the Vikings on national TV Sunday night.
That win, along with the 49ers' loss in Seattle, left the Cards – leading by three games with just four to play -- in complete control of the NFC West.
A win in San Francisco on "Monday Night Football" will clinch the division title for the Cards. Yet there is an underlying subtext to the game.
The Cards have evolved into a more business-like team week to week, growth from becoming a winning franchise. Words like revenge and payback are avoided.
Some things, though, can't be forgotten.
"I can't wait for this one," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Man, I've been waiting for this one. We don't care nothing about winning the division. That's some of the talk, but this game is personal."
Said safety Adrian Wilson, "We owe those guys a little something."
The normal motivations aren't going anywhere. The Cards needed two tries to clinch the division last season and would rather not have that happen – "We've got to take care of business this week," running back Tim Hightower said, "and that's not an option" – and besides, another national television shot can only enhance the Cards' reputation with a good performance.
Plus it's a division game, coach Ken Whisenhunt said, and the Cards mark those battles as their No. 1 priority. They've won 10 of their last 11 games within the NFC West.
Ahh, but that one loss still stings.
The Cards weren't the same, of course. Beanie Wells was still far from making an impact at running back after missing most of training camp. Steve Breaston couldn't play in the opener because his knee injury flared up before the game, forcing a very gimpy Anquan Boldin – nursing a bad hamstring pull – to play despite barely being able to move. Tim Hightower had twice as many catches (12 to six) as Larry Fitzgerald.
The defense, meanwhile, played well all game – until allowing an 80-yard fourth-quarter drive for the game-winning touchdown.
"It's one that got away," linebacker Karlos Dansby said, "but we've got another opportunity to redeem that."
The rivalry between the Niners and Cards has been percolating for a while, in part because seven of the last eight meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Cards weren't thrilled in training camp to hear some think the 49ers would pass them in the standings as new coach Mike Singletary toughened them up with "nutcracker" drills and the like.
Those days, of course, are even further in the rear view than the regular-season opener.
That doesn't change the excitement of reclaiming the top of the NFC West against the team that left the Cards mostly irritated that long-ago September afternoon.
"Just because you can do drills real good doesn't mean you can play football on Sundays," Dockett said. "That's been our approach. They beat us the first time and we don't like losing in the division. We're coming and they know we'll be ready. I'm not going to give them any (bulletin) board talk or anything. But they know we're coming."
Fitzgerald needs 31 yards receiving to reach 1,000 this season. Fitzgerald would become the first player in franchise history with three straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Ben Graham has 51 straight punts without a touchback – and has 27 punts inside the 20-yard line in that same span.
The Cardinals are allowing just 15.2 points per game on the road, the second-lowest total in the NFL behind the Colts (15.0).
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