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Not The Matchup Expected

Finale between Cards, Niners was supposed to hold more importance


The Cardinals and 49ers meet again after San Francisco's blowout win earlier this season.

SAN FRANCISCO – The NFC West title was supposed to be available for a game in the final weekend, but neither the Cardinals nor the 49ers ever expected it to be between their other two NFC West brethren.

It was supposed to be the game at Candlestick Park Sunday, between the two-time defending division champions and the wanna-be up-and-comers whom many picked to be playoff-bound before the season started.

The game hasn't changed, but the stakes are considerably different.

"They're still a rival," Cardinals quarterback John Skelton said. "It's still a division game. People say we don't have anything to play for, but it's really pride and to beat a division rival in the last game of the year really does a lot going into the offseason."

The two teams have met once already this season, a lopsided 27-6 win for the 49ers on "Monday Night Football" that ended up being known more for the press conference outburst from Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson than anything that happened on the field.

That was barely a month ago, and already much has changed. Neither Anderson or 49ers quarterback Troy Smith are starting any longer, giving way to Skelton and Alex Smith (whom Troy Smith had replaced in the first place).

The 49ers – like the Cardinals, sporting a 5-10 record – also have a new coach since then, after Mike Singletary was fired last weekend after San Francisco was officially eliminated from the playoffs with a loss in St. Louis. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula took over.

"(This game) is probably not about bragging rights," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's probably more about just everything that we've gone through."

For the Cardinals, finishing with three wins in four games is the goal. Plus they'd like to avenge the Monday night loss that, in hindsight, was probably the low point of the season.

"We got beat physically, got beat on both sides of the ball up front," safety Adrian Wilson said. "We can go back and look at the first game and say we didn't play with any intensity, but we just got beat and it's something we don't want to go back to."

The loser will get higher draft status, although the Cardinals' won't change much. They are slotted for the fifth pick right now; a loss could move them as high as No. 2 overall depending on other outcomes while a win won't drop them any lower than 10th overall, again based on results from other games.

Both teams are still trying to find out who their long-term quarterbacks will be. Skelton is an option but the Cards will certainly be looking at all options in the offseason. Alex Smith likely won't even return to San Francisco in 2011 (making this last start all the more odd, unless Troy Smith also is not a 2011 option).

Next year, however, is rarely the concern of the current players on the field. They live in the now, like the chance to beat a rival. Or simply win a season finale.

"Motivation?" wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "This is the NFL. You don't need much motivation. We're fighting for our jobs, we're fighting for our fans, we're fighting for the organization. We've got pride. You don't want to go out on a bad note."

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