SF-AZ Matchup Report

Arizona - On their way to their first Super Bowl appearance in 2008, the Arizona Cardinals won their first division title in 33 years.

A perfect record against the NFC West was a significant factor in both achievements.

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The Cardinals look to continue their domination of division foes when they open the season Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers - a team they have had success against lately.

Oddsmakers from online sports book SPORTSBETTING.com have made the Cardinals –6.5 point spread favorites (View NFL odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 86% of bets for this game have been placed on the Cardinals –6.5 (View NFL bet percentages).

The NFC champion Cardinals went 3-7 outside the division last season but won all six games against the weak West. That gave the Cardinals their first division title since 1975 despite a 9-7 overall record, and they rode veteran quarterback Kurt Warner and star receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a surprising run to the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals' bid for a championship fell short with a 27-23 loss to Pittsburgh, but the team feels ready to make a return trip to the championship game in 2009. That's in spite of an 0-4 preseason record which coach Ken Whisenhunt said is misleading.

Whisenhunt, entering his third year with the team, said the Cardinals played only basic packages and gave away none of the many wrinkles they will employ once the season begins.

"Preseason is kind of a mirage of what's going to happen during the regular season," safety Adrian Wilson said. "We probably had 20 percent of the stuff we're going to run in the regular season up."

Perhaps the best example of the limitations in Arizona's preseason sets is that Fitzgerald lined up in the same spot throughout exhibition play. He feels liberated this week.

"I'm happy to be able to move around and do some different things and not just be so stationary," said Fitzgerald, who tied for the league lead with 12 touchdown catches and finished second with 1,431 receiving yards, "... to get to some of the things we do so well and had so much success last year doing, things that we flourished with."

That happened in large part because of Warner's resurgence. Now 39, he beat out Matt Leinart for the top job last year and started every game for the first time since 2001 with St. Louis.

Warner finished second in the league with 4,583 passing yards and third with 30 touchdowns, throwing to perhaps the most dynamic receiving trios in the league in Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.

With so many weapons, the Cardinals ranked among league leaders with 26.7 points and 365.8 yards per game. They had enough offense to beat the 49ers twice, but the defense got a lot of the credit for their thrilling 29-24 home victory Nov. 10.

San Francisco had first-and-goal at the Arizona 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter. After spiking the ball to stop the clock, the Niners ran two plays without scoring as the Cardinals held on.

That defeat helped send San Francisco (7-9) to its franchise-record sixth consecutive losing season and gave Arizona a season sweep. The Cardinals have won six of the last eight matchups.

The Niners, however, are encouraged going into this year after winning four of their final five games.

Mike Singletary, who took over as coach before Week 8, was tough on his team from the start of his first training camp this summer, insisting he had to "make sure there's not a false sense of security about where we are."

That hasn't stopped the Niners from expecting they will be better than they were in 2008.

"I'm really looking forward to us going out and really playing a whole game together and really seeing what we have," Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis told the team's official Web site. "Arizona is going to be a good team to play against. It's going to be a good test for us."

The Cardinals will likely see a lot of Frank Gore, who will get most of the carries in a run-oriented offense. Gore played 14 games and ran for 1,036 yards last year - his lowest total in three seasons as the club's No. 1 back and well below the 1,695 he totaled in 2006.

Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye expects more from Gore this year.

"The bell cow in this operation will be No. 21," said Raye, referring to Gore by his uniform number. "This ballpark is going to be run by No. 21."

Shaun Hill was San Francisco's quarterback down the stretch last season, and he'll try to continue his success after beating out former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith for the starting job in 2009. The Niners have gone 7-3 in Hill's 10 career starts.

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Posted: 9/9/09 7:20PM ET

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