The Week 12 undercard between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals looks more like an unsanctioned alley fight. Both teams are 3-7 and suitably desperate. The loser of this matchup between one-time NFC West favorites could be finished.
Alas, viewers might need a six-pack to get them through this motley Monday night matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Six potential points of interest:
1. Mike Singletary could implode at any time.
The last time the 49ers played in prime time (against Philadelphia in Week 5), their head coach ripped into Alex Smith on the sideline after the quarterback served up a crushing turnover.
Singletary sent backup David Carr onto the field. Tight end Vernon Davis implored Smith to fight back. Smith argued his case to Singletary with unexpected passion. Singletary backed down, sending Smith back into the huddle. The 49ers rallied and nearly won the game.
The sideline spectacle made for compelling theater, even if the on-field product wasn't particularly satisfying. The 49ers are 3-2 since that defeat, but the pressure on Singletary grew considerably after a 21-0 home defeat to Tampa Bay last week.
2. Big plays will happen one way or another.
The Cardinals have eight return touchdowns this season: two by kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling, two by free safety Kerry Rhodes and one apiece by linebacker Gerald Hayes, cornerback Michael Adams, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and even tackle Levi Brown (on a recovery in the end zone).
Arizona also emerged from Week 11 having allowed more points per game than any team in the league. The Cardinals had allowed 19 pass plays of at least 30 yards, tied for the NFL high. They had allowed 12 rushing plays of at least 20 yards, the second-highest total in the league (Frank Gore, anyone?).
The 49ers flashed big-play ability through the air with Troy Smith at quarterback until the Tampa Bay game. But their offensive line has been struggling, and Troy Smith was fortunate to finish the Bucs game with only one interception.
The 49ers traded Hill to Detroit because they thought Alex Smith was on his way and Carr would provide a talent upgrade in the No. 2 role.
Hill has eight touchdowns and four interceptions in his last five starts.
ESPN's producers will presumably have the highlights ready if/when Troy Smith falters. They'll have to dig deeper into the archives to find Leinart's finest NFL moments, but we could see those, too, if current Cardinals starter Derek Anderson wilts under the prime-time spotlight.
Hill wasn't the long-term answer in San Francisco. Leinart, who signed with Houston after Arizona released him, probably wasn't the solution, either.
But it's not as though their former teams have necessarily upgraded, either.
The 49ers' best defensive players appear to be gaining momentum as the season progresses.
Watch Willis and you'll find the football soon enough. He's a brutally efficient tackler with pass-rush ability (two sacks in Week 11) and a mean streak. Receivers catching short passes over the middle are at risk.
Smith is making his 150th consecutive start. He leads the 49ers with five sacks and has often given the Cardinals serious problems. Arizona has new personnel on the left side of its offensive line, affecting the matchups. Keep an eye on Smith early to see whether it matters.
5. The Larry Fitzgerald matchup.
The Cardinals' Pro Bowl receiver had 457 yards in four games against the 49ers over the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He has 346 yards in six subsequent games against San Francisco.
It's hard to say definitively. Fitzgerald seemingly should have become a bigger threat once Kurt Warner took over as quarterback for two-plus seasons beginning in 2007.
The statistical nosedive coincided with cornerback Nate Clements' signing in San Francisco before the 2007 season. Clements' strength and physical style can make him a tough draw for Fitzgerald. He has generally held up well in their matchups.
Fitzgerald has 20 catches for 288 yards over the Cardinals' last three games.
6. Marquess of Queensberry rules might not apply.
These teams do not get along. It would not be a surprise if the NFL hands down a couple of fines afterward.
Fierce on-field battles between the 49ers' Davis and Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson have spilled over into the media, with Arizona defensive lineman Darnell Dockett egging them on. The Cardinals have added another brash persona in outside linebacker Joey Porter.
It's a potentially volatile mix, particularly with both teams perched on the brink.
At least Singletary is there to keep everyone on an even keel.