GLENDALE AZ - NOVEMBER 29: Quarterback Troy Smith #1 of the San Francisco 49ers prepares to snap the ball during the first quarter of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on November 29 2010 in Glendale Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Four months ago, the pundits declared the NFC West would be a division race between the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals. At the time it seemed like the most logical assumption. The St. Louis Rams had shown zero signs of life. The Seattle Seahawks were going through a coaching change and did little last season to prove they were improving.
It came down to the back-to-back division winning Arizona Cardinals, who seemed like they patched up the losses they endured in the offseason, and the 49ers, who gradually improved in 2009. Perhaps the biggest believer in both these teams were the fans.
After all, the 49ers and their fans felt like they already reached their first postseason berth since 2002 before any games had taken place. With Alex Smith finally taking over at quarterback, a very good trio of Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis were at his disposal on offense. Meanwhile, the defense was already stacked. They owned the best middle linebacker in the league in Patrick Willis, who played behind a well-groomed pass rush and an experienced secondary.
Soon after, they 49ers realized their hopes were mere dreams when they began the season 0-5. Alex Smith was not the clear-cut answer at quarterback. They didn't bring the smash-mouth running game that head coach Mike Singletary preached. In the big games, they also realized that they didn't have the composure to hold onto a lead. 2010 was the season that could've been for the 49ers.
At the other end, Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals could never prove they could hang with the best teams in the league. In fact, the Cardinals rank at the bottom of the league in just about every stat-category. It started with the instability at quarterback. Derek Anderson quickly dissipated into nothing after a horrible beginning to the season. Although he went through hell to keep his starting position, his determination could not win over the hearts of the fans -- and justifyibly so. As an offense, the Cardinals rushing game failed every attempt to -- rush -- the football. Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower, and the offensive line never meshed as the season progressed, and now the Cardinals are ranked 31st running the football.
One of the biggest disappointments for Arizona this season has been the defense. With an all around deep defensive line, a core of veteran linebackers, and one of the top secondaries in the league on paper, it still isn't clear why the defense couldn't muster solid play this season. Much of the blame can fall on defensive coordinator Bill Davis, as the defense became predictable and lackluster at times. With a lack of an offense and defense, the Cardinals proved in 2010 that their problems are far worse then a few offseason losses.
Sunday's game shows just how quickly a division stranglehold can change in just one season. The Cardinals reign at the top was cut down miserably. After so many seasons looking up at the rest of the league, Arizona appears to find themselves back in a familiar position. The 49ers have capped off a four season span in which they and many NFL analysts declared them the team to beat in their division. Ironic as it sounds, Sunday's game will determine who the division's last place team is, rather then who will be headed to the playoffs. Game on.