SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -When Alex Smith thinks back to the best prime-time NFL games he stayed up to watch as a kid, the 49ers quarterback mostly remembers those great San Francisco teams of the late 1980s and the champion Dallas clubs of the '90s.
He doesn't recall any Monday night meetings between two clubs with four consecutive losing seasons apiece - playing on the league's opening weekend, no less.
His 49ers' matchup with the Arizona Cardinals is an unlikely choice for such a high-profile debut at Candlestick Park, but Smith feels its importance to both clubs justifies the bright lights.
``These are two teams that are turning a new page, and this is the first step,'' Smith said. ``They've got a new coach, and we're looking to take the next step into the playoffs. This could hopefully be a good rivalry in the NFC West for a long time.''
There's already a rivalry of sorts, as these clubs' mutual mediocrity has followed an infuriating pattern over the last three seasons.
When the 49ers were the NFL's worst team at 2-14 in 2004, their only victories both came against the Cardinals. But while the Niners rebuilt the franchise over the next two seasons, they lost their ability to beat their fellow cellar-dwellers in the NFC West, losing four straight to Arizona.
Though the Cardinals went 5-11 in each of the past two seasons, 49ers coach Mike Nolan still hasn't beaten them.
``It's something we think about,'' said Smith, the losing quarterback in both of Arizona's last two wins at Candlestick Park.
``I think this team realizes how much different we are than the last time we played them, how far we've come. When you look back at those tapes, we've all watched those game films and realized we hurt ourselves. I think the team's excited to get an opportunity back at them, and loving that it's on Monday night.''
Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt will make his debut on the night San Francisco pays tribute to former coach Bill Walsh, who died July 30 of leukemia.
While Nolan's 49ers have cautious playoff optimism after making several free-agent additions to last season's 7-9 team, Whisenhunt spent his first training camp working on eradicating the Cardinals' culture of losing - a task Nolan knows well.
``You try to implement things that have been successful for you,'' Whisenhunt said. ``Those are the things you take for granted when you do them all the time. There are a number of things in place here with the new stadium, things we have done in free agency ... but getting the players to practice and prepare the way you're used to is what's (important).''
Whisenhunt and Nolan spent the 2000 season together on the New York Jets' coaching staff, followed by years of memorable battles between Nolan's defense with the Baltimore Ravens and Whisenhunt's offense in Pittsburgh.
Nolan sees improvement in the Cardinals' oft-criticized offensive line under Russ Grimm, who left Pittsburgh along with Whisenhunt. The former Steelers coaches overhauled the Cardinals' workout philosophy in the offseason, building a $200,000 weight room to aid Arizona's transformation from a finesse team to a power-based attack.
That's exactly the same move Nolan made when he took over the 49ers in early 2005. The results were visible last season when Frank Gore led the NFC with 1,695 yards rushing behind a surprisingly effective offensive line.
With Pro Bowl left guard Larry Allen's prodigious strength setting a benchmark for his teammates, San Francisco's new lineup is stronger and more powerful than ever before. And with rookie Joe Staley taking over at right tackle for much-maligned Kwame Harris, the line has no more obvious weak links.
That's the dream for Arizona, which drafted right tackle Levi Brown and announced a new focus on the running game after floundering on the ground last season. Edgerrin James managed just 1,159 yards behind last season's miserable line.
``That is going to be part of our game,'' Whisenhunt said. ``Defenses can give you multiple looks to try to take you out of the run, but when that happens, you have to be able to run the football.''
Both clubs' attempts to define their identities begin on a big stage, but big games are nothing new to Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner who starts his second NFL season with high hopes.
``You've got to be able to forget the past, as hard as it is,'' said Leinart, who played well in 11 straight starts last season before getting hurt during Arizona's win in its Christmas Eve trip to San Francisco.
``Last year is just last year. Bringing in a new coach, it refreshes things. There's just a difference. ... It's a totally different attitude we've developed this offseason.''

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