Ready for some 'Monday Night Football'

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Here's hoping the NFC West saved its best Week 14 football for Monday night.

The 49ers and Cardinals get a chance to at least partially atone for the Sunday sins of their divisional brethren.

Those sins are best summarized this way:

The Cardinals and 49ers will almost certainly offer more. Five questions on my mind heading into this game:

  • How will 49ers quarterback Alex Smith perform against a good team on a national stage? This is a big game for him. Playing well in a victory over Arizona would represent a significant step forward for him.

  • How much maturing have the Cardinals really done? I suspect quite a bit. They're not 5-1 on the road by accident. Winning on the road against the 49ers, a team that has matched up well against Arizona, would affirm what the Cardinals think they have learned about themselves.

  • Will the 49ers make more of an effort to utilize Frank Gore? Coach Mike Singletary might be correct when he says opponents have partially dictated the 49ers' pass-happy approach. But it can't happen game after game. Gore is too valuable.

  • Will the 49ers' recently improved pass protection hold up? Right guard Chilo Rachal hasn't been mentioned much lately, and that's a good thing. But with Darnell Dockett lining up against him at times, is this the week that changes?

  • How well will the Cardinals run the ball? Their offensive line generally has not fared well against the 49ers' front seven. Arizona has become a better running team lately, though. A strong showing on the ground would help protect quarterback Kurt Warner while validating the improvements Arizona has made in that aspect.

Much more to come Monday.