Crazy things happen when 49ers meet Cardinals

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) - When the San Francisco 49ers meet the Arizona Cardinals, odd things tend to happen.

Take last Nov. 10, for instance. With the Cardinals clinging to a 29-24 lead, the 49ers drove to the Arizona 1-yard line in the final seconds. Shaun Hill spiked the ball to stop the clock, then Frank Gore ran for no gain and slipped down.

"I fell," Gore recalled. "I thought about it the next day. I couldn't get it out of my head. Me and coach Singletary, we talked about it and he told me to forget about it."

The play was reviewed, then as confusion reigned on the San Francisco sideline, Clark Haggans stopped Michael Robinson for a 1-yard loss as the game ended.

Had San Francisco scored and won, and the rest of the season went the way it did, Arizona and San Francisco both would have finished 8-8. Instead, the Cardinals finished 9-7 and, if you paid any attention, you know what happened after that.

"Arizona surprised the world last year," 49ers cornerback Dre' Bly said. "Nobody expected them to win a division and do what they did. They came together at the right time and were able to go to the Super Bowl."

Arizona won three playoff games - two at home - before the near miss against the Steelers in Tampa.

But now it's the 49ers, and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is wary.

"Every game has been a barn burner, especially the last two at home for us," he said. "One went to overtime and we missed a short kick, then last year on the last play of the game it was a goal-line stand. I'm anticipating the same thing."

The game features far different coaching philosophies as far as training camp and the preseason go. Mike Singletary, entering his first full season as 49ers coach, worked his team extra hard, with plenty of contact. Whisenhunt, taking a cue from his days on the Pittsburgh staff, has brisk workouts with little hitting. He prefers to save that for game day.

"I know a lot of people have a lot of different ways of doing things," Singletary said. "Unfortunately for me, I only know one way, and that's you've got to work. ... That's what I believe. That's what I was raised with. That's what my parents taught me, and that's what I'm going to die with. So I'll just go forward with that. It's worked for me so far, and see what happens."

Shaun Hill, who beat out Alex Smith for starting quarterback, said it was a camp like no other.

"It was by far the toughest, longest training camp I've ever been through and I think to a man in the locker room everybody felt that way," Hill said. " ... Really, it was nothing we didn't expect, knowing him (Singletary) and knowing how he is."

Told of Hill's remarks, Whisenhunt couldn't resist a jab.

"Come on, is training camp that hard for a quarterback?" Whisenhunt said. "I mean, I know his arm will get sore or maybe his groin gets sore from all the drops, but it's not like he's tackling and running routes and hitting people."

As for which philosophy works best, Whisenhunt said, "We'll find out on Sunday how these teams match up and how we play. I feel good about what our team's done in training camp and how we've prepared in practice. Obviously we would have liked to have played a little better in some of the preseason games, but we're excited about the season opening. We're looking forward to getting in front of our crowd again and playing well."

The Cardinals will unfurl their NFC championship banner before the game in front of what has become one of the more raucous crowds in pro football. Perhaps the excited atmosphere will bury the uncertainty that follows the team's 0-4 preseason.

Arizona is 14-4 at home in Whisenhunt's two seasons as coach.

"We're always excited to be at our place, especially with the dome that has become a distinct home-field advantage for us," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "We've been very successful there, so hopefully we'll have a lot of factors moving in our direction that will help us get this thing started right and help us carry that through the rest of the season."

The Cardinals could be without one of their chief weapons, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, with a sore hamstring. But Arizona will have Larry Fitzgerald, coming off one of the best playoff performances by a receiver in NFL history.

Arizona's revamped defense, under new coordinator Bill Davis, will zero in first and foremost on controlling Gore. No wonder. In his last six games against the Cardinals, Gore has 802 yards - 504 rushing and 298 passing - and eight touchdowns rushing.

"He's just tough," Arizona nose tackle Bryan Robinson. "I mean he's just a tough football player, by far as far as I'm concerned their best football player, on offense anyway. He's going to give it to you every down."

Gore, with rookie Glen Coffee backing him up, is ready to be the focal point of San Francisco's offense.

"It makes me excited knowing that the coaches believe in me that type of way," Gore said. "When coach Singletary got the job, he sat with me after the season and told me he wanted me to get in the best shape I can and be ready to tote the rock. That's one thing I did this offseason."

Tough as it was, Gore called it the best training camp of his career.

"I went every play. I didn't miss any days," he said. "I felt fast, strong. Now I'm just ready to play on the field Sunday."

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