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.