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NFL Preview - Arizona (5-10) at San Francisco (5-10)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - A former No. 1 overall pick will make a return -- albeit not necessarily a triumphant one -- to the starting quarterback's role when the San Francisco 49ers host the Arizona Cardinals in the 2010 season finale for both teams this Sunday.

Alex Smith, chosen first by the Niners out of the University of Utah in 2005, has spent much of his sixth NFL season in tumult after missing five games due to injury, then losing his No. 1 role to Troy Smith under the reign of now ex- head coach Mike Singletary.

Singletary was fired this past Sunday, immediately after a 25-17 loss at St. Louis that ended the team's playoff hopes. He was replaced by defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who in his first act as interim head coach, said he'd go with Alex Smith for the Week 17 matchup with the Cardinals.

Tomsula stated Alex Smith's edge in experience as the reason for the change.

Alex Smith's contract runs out at the end of the season, making it possible that Sunday's game will be his last with the Niners, for whom he's completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 9,123 yards, 49 touchdowns and 53 interceptions since his much-heralded debut.

He started seven games in 2005 and all 16 in 2006, then was limited to just seven starts in 2007 and missed the entire 2008 season with a shoulder injury. He returned to start 10 games last season and is 18-31 in 49 career starts with San Francisco.

"It's nice to go out there and play well, period. I'm not really getting into what's going to happen after this," he said. "Whenever you go out there, even though it's the last game of the season and we're out of the playoffs, pride's on the line. You want to go out there and play well, no question. That's not going to change.

"At this point, it's you want to go out and win, for the organization, for the fans, for the team. Any team you're a part of, you want to do it for everyone involved."

Meanwhile, the Cardinals will go with rookie quarterback John Skelton, who's become the latest candidate to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Kurt Warner after last season's playoff run.

Skelton is 2-1 as a starter, including a dramatic 27-26 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys last week in which he engineered a last-minute drive capped off by Jay Feely's 48-yard field goal with five seconds to play.

The youngster completed just 11-of-25 passes for 183 yards against Dallas, but connected with Larry Fitzgerald on a fourth-and-15 play that kept the decisive drive alive.

Overall, Skelton has completed 45-of-101 attempts for 570 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Injuries to previous starter Derek Anderson and backup Max Hall created the vacancy for Skelton. Anderson is questionable this week following a concussion sustained last month. Hall was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder problem.

"I think we'll stick with what our plan all along has been, and that's to play the best player, the player that gives us the best chance to win," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "I think right now that's John Skelton."

SERIES HISTORY

San Francisco has a 22-16 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals and registered its third consecutive win over Arizona with a 27-6 verdict at University of Phoenix Stadium on Nov. 29. The 49ers also took both matchups from the eventual NFC West champion Cardinals in 2009, completing the sweep with a 24-9 victory at Candlestick Park during Week 14 of that season. Arizona won both meetings with the Niners the previous year, including a 23-13 triumph in San Francisco.

The 49ers will be aiming for their first four-game winning streak over the Cardinals since a period between 1999-2002.

Whisenhunt is 2-5 against the 49ers since taking over as the Cardinals' head coach prior to the 2007 season.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Arizona's offense has tailed off dramatically since the franchise's Super Bowl year of 2008, climbing to just 26th in scoring (18.8 ppg) and 31st across the board in total yards (268.7 ypg), passing yards (181.3 ypg) and rushing yards (87.3 ypg) after last week's effort. Meanwhile, San Francisco has been just intermittently smothering in allowing 22.6 points per game (18th overall) and 331.0 total yards (14th) and 233.1 passing yards (24th) per week. The Niners' 97.9 yards per game opponent rushing average is seventh-best in the league.

Skelton has won two of three starts and threw his first career touchdown pass -- a 74-yarder to rookie Andre Roberts -- last week. Running back Tim Hightower had a career-high 12 catches for 121 yards against the Niners in a 2009 meeting and counterpart Beanie Wells added 103 scrimmage yards in last year's visit to San Francisco. On the outside, Fitzgerald had five touchdowns in his last six games against the Niners and his 1,012 yards this season makes him the first Cardinal with four straight four-digit campaigns. Since the start of 2008, his 39 touchdowns receptions are tops in the league. Roberts had five catches for 110 yards and a score last week, and veteran Steve Breaston needs seven catches for a third consecutive season with 50 or more.

Collectively, the Niners haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games, the longest active streak in the league. Elsewhere on defense, they'll be without linebacker Patrick Willis, who has sacks in five of his last seven games, and over the last three games with the Cardinals, has 28 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. He has a broken right hand that required surgery this week. Fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks had a career-best three sacks with two forced fumbles in his last home meeting with Arizona, and linebacker Takeo Spikes had an interception in San Francisco's win over the Cardinals earlier this season. Safety Dashon Goldson had an interception and a pair of forced fumbles in the last year's game against Arizona.

WHEN THE NINERS HAVE THE BALL

Prolific offense hasn't exactly been the hallmark for San Francisco this season, with a 29th-best scoring average of 17.8 points per game and a total yardage average of 310.1 per game (26th in the league). The numbers tick upward only slightly when it comes to passing, where the Niners are 22nd with a 206.3 yards per week average, and rushing, where San Francisco comes in 21st with 103.8 yards per game. As it turns out, the Cardinals have been as porous on the defensive side, surrendering 26.4 points per game to place 28th in the league. They're also 28th in total yards allowed with 374.3 per week. Teams have gashed Arizona for 226.1 passing yards (22nd overall) and 148.2 rushing yards (30th) per week through 15 games.

Alex Smith has won his last two starts against Arizona. In his backfield, Brian Westbrook has 266 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in his last two games against the Cardinals and aims for a third straight against Arizona with 100 rush yards and a touchdown. Another runner, rookie Anthony Dixon, had a rushing touchdown in the teams' last meeting. Among the receivers, tight end Vernon Davis had a scoring catch in last year's home game against the Cardinals and since the start of 2009, has a league-best 19 touchdown catches for a tight end. Wideout Michael Crabtree had six catches for 122 yards and a touchdown last week and is seeking a third straight game against Arizona with at least a 35-yard touchdown catch. Lastly, return man Ted Ginn had a 78-yard punt runback for a score last week.

Defensively, the Cardinals had two interception returns for touchdowns last week and has 12 return scores this season, second most in league history. Since 2007, tackle Darnell Dockett has 28 sacks, the most in the league at his position. Meanwhile, in eight career games at San Francisco, safety Adrian Wilson has two interceptions, two sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

FANTASY FOCUS

Arizona's Fitzgerald would normally be a standout, but the quarterback shuffling has muted his numbers somewhat this season. Under positive circumstances, he and Roberts could make an effective tandem for Skelton. Meanwhile, for the Niners, Alex Smith will be primed for a solid outing in his home farewell and has another pair of solid targets in Davis and Crabtree. The Arizona defense has made plays all season as well and could be worthwhile.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Given the coaching upheaval in San Francisco and the quarterback uncertainty in both places, it's hard to feel ultra-confident in either team's chances. Breaking the tie, home-field advantage and a quarterback who�s trying to boost his worth on the free-agent market gives the Niners the slimmest of edges.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Cardinals 23

12/30 19:30:23 ET

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