Fearless Prediction: Cardinals (8-4) at 49ers (5-7)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals are a better team than the one that lost 20-16 at home to the 49ers to start the season. San Francisco primarily rushed only four, but Arizona's improved ground game makes it a more dangerous proposition to drop so many defenders into coverage. 49ers QB Alex Smith threw 45 passes in Seattle last Sunday while RB Frank Gore got just 12 carries in a game that was close throughout. Gore is likely to be more involved this week as Smith will be facing a complex scheme that feeds off blitz packages on long passing downs.
FAST FACTS: Cardinals QB Kurt Warner averages 329.4 passing yards in Monday night starts. ... The 49ers' Vernon Davis has 10 touchdown receptions, a franchise record for tight ends.
Inside The Camps
Quarterback Kurt Warner has been sharp in the four games since an awful outing in a loss to the Panthers.
Warner had five interceptions that day, when the Cardinals had to attempt 46 passes in an effort to mount a comeback.
The only thing that's stopped Warner since is a concussion, which kept him out against Tennessee. In the four games he's played since, Warner has thrown for 12 touchdowns and hasn't been intercepted. He's completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,089 yards.
Warner has been aided by overall offensive improvement. Receiver Anquan Boldin is healthy after struggling the first half of the year with hamstring and ankle injuries.
The offensive line play has improved, and the running game has been productive over the past month.
That's given the Cardinals additional weapons and taken some pressure off Warner. Over the past few years, Warner has felt if he played a poor game, the team had no chance of winning.
That no longer appears to be true, but obviously their chances of success are much higher when he's as sharp as he's been the past month.
San Francisco 49ers' left tackle Joe Staley is pleased that veteran Barry Sims has done a good job since taking over responsibility of protecting Alex Smith's blind side on Nov. 1.
But that does not diminish Staley's desire to return to the lineup.
"I'm happy Barry (Sims) is doing really well," Staley said. "But I want to be the guy. I have that selfish nature."
Staley exited the 49ers' lineup on the first play of their Nov. 1 game against the Indianapolis Colts with damage to two knee ligaments. He received the initial diagnosis of six to eight weeks, and immediately saw that six weeks later the 49ers played the Arizona Cardinals on "Monday Night Football."
He returned to limited practice Thursday, as the 49ers began preparations to face the NFC West-leading Cardinals. Staley took part in only the individual period at the beginning of practice.
"We'll just kind of bring him back slowly and see how it goes from day-to-day, and we'll go from there," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said Thursday.
Sims has played well since filling in for Staley after the first play of the 49ers' No. 1 game against the Indianapolis Colts. But Staley wants his old job back sooner rather than later.
"I'm excited with the way I feel," Staley said. "If everything goes well out there, I'll be on track to play Monday."
The 49ers' pass protection has improved in recent weeks after the 49ers went to more shotgun formations for quarterback Alex Smith. Smith has been sacked just once in his past 117 dropbacks over 2 1/2 games.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 31-21