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NFL Regular Season's Finally Here! Cardinals Begin Defense of NFC Championship Sunday Against 49ers at U of P

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How much stock should one put in a team's performance during the NFL preseason? In our opinion, not a damn thing.

That's why Arizona Cardinals' fans should give a rousing "so what?" and "who cares?" when talking about the team's zero-win preseason. Yeah, the starting offense only tallied one touchdown and the defense was mostly invisible, but whatever, it doesn't matter. Because, like every other NFL franchise, the Cards only showed their most basic packages and not the fancy-pants schemes they will certainly break out during the regular season.

However, there are plenty of reasons for concern. Will Kurt Warner's aching hip and rickety body hold up over a grueling 16-game schedule? Is the fact that Anquan Boldin, who missed practice on Wednesday, a reason for long-term concern? What about the secondary that the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers picked apart in preseason week three?

Well, we'll find out starting Sunday when the defending NFC Champions begin the regular season with a home game against the recently inept San Francisco 49ers. However, this isn't a gimme for the Cards because the Niners won't be the softies that the Cardinals have dominated over the past few years, thanks to a bad-ass dude who's in charge.

Inspired by the training methods used by Jerry Rice and the late Walter Payton, Mike Singletary -- the Hall of Fame linebacker and current SF head coach -- had a cardio-killing hill constructed at the team's practice facility in Santa Clara. All offseason, the players ran up and down that mound, backwards and forwards, did back-flips (kidding), and just about everything else in order to improve fitness, toughness, and football skills.

As a result, the Cards' division rivals -- who improved 2007's 5-11 record to 7-9 last season under Singletary -- shouldn't be the pushover of the past. Look for San Francisco to test Arizona up front with a rushing attack led by Frank Gore and Glen Coffee, a rookie out of Alabama. If successful, this will allow quarterback Shaun Hill to make conservative tosses in the flat and on the edges. The Cardinals' maligned secondary will need to keep things honest and not get burned by play action.

On the Niners' injury front, backup QB Alex Smith didn't play in the team's final preseason game because of a thumb injury, but should be available on Sunday. Starting strong safety Michael Lewis, who suffered two concussions during the preseason, is also slated to return to action. WR Brandon Jones (busted shoulder) and LB Ahmad Brooks (knee) will not play. Meanwhile, some Arizona players are banged up, such as WRs Early Doucet and Steve Breaston, but everyone is expected to be available.

Scheduled kick off is 1:15 p.m. Sunday, September 13, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. TV: FOX 10. Radio: KTAR-92.3 FM. More info at www.azcardinals.com.

On Monday, check out www.phoenixnewtimes.com for an in-depth game recap.

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