Cardinals-49ers Preview

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By Natalie Rivers By Natalie Rivers

(AP) -- Some outsiders may view the San Francisco 49ers' success as a fluke - which is just fine by them - though it's becoming tough to ignore they're among the NFL's top teams.

Their stellar defense has been a main reason for that.

San Francisco seeks an eighth straight victory Sunday when it hosts the Arizona Cardinals, who are coming off a surprising win of their own.

The 49ers (8-1) are riding their longest winning streak and off to their best start since 1997 following a 27-20 victory over the New York Giants last Sunday. Rather than regularly being praised on a national level, San Francisco often is forced to listen to the doubters predicting its demise as the season progresses.

Not much was expected of a team which hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002, and only three of its victories have come against teams with winning records. However, the 49ers believed in themselves long before the victory over the NFC East-leading Giants.

San Francisco has the league's second-best record behind Green Bay and holds a five-game lead in the NFC West.

"It might change the perspective of everybody now, that we're not just a team that's a joke," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "We're a team to actually take serious. Everybody was probably looking at us like, 'They're not that good, they have certain things they need still to work on.'

"Don't get me wrong, we're not perfect. We're still working on a lot of things - offense, defense, special teams - because we've got to make sure every game we win with all three phases. To us, it doesn't matter if the league takes us serious."

Francois is part of a defense which has allowed the NFL's fewest points per game (15.3) and forced the most turnovers (21). Cornerback Carlos Rogers is tied for the league lead with five interceptions.

The 49ers rank first against the run, giving up an average of 73.2 yards, and have not allowed a rushing touchdown in 10 straight games. Their 31-game stretch of not allowing a 100-yard rusher is the longest active streak in the NFL.

That run may continue against an Arizona team which ranks 26th in rushing at 95.0 yards per game.

Beanie Wells has averaged 53.4 yards and scored twice in five games since a 138-yard, three-touchdown performance Oct. 2 against the Giants. He ran for 62 yards on 23 carries in Sunday's 21-17 win at Philadelphia, as quarterback John Skelton helped the Cardinals (3-6) to their second straight win without the injured Kevin Kolb.

Skelton overcame two interceptions to throw for 315 yards and three touchdowns, with Larry Fitzgerald catching seven balls for 146 yards and two TDs. Kolb continues to recover from a foot injury and had lost six straight before getting hurt, but Skelton knows his time as the starter may be short-lived.

"Kevin is doing everything he can to get healthy again and get back on the field," Skelton told the NFL Network. "He's a competitor and he wants to be out there just as bad as anyone. That's not for me to say or me to speculate about. It's really up to the coaching staff. I'm sure if Kevin's healthy, he'll be able to go."

Skelton started Arizona's last matchup with the 49ers but was pulled late in the third quarter, having gone 14 of 25 for 92 yards in a 38-7 loss Jan. 2.

No matter who is under center come Sunday, Arizona likely will have a tough time ending a four-game skid against San Francisco, which is getting solid play from often-criticized quarterback Alex Smith.

The No. 1 overall pick from 2005 is having his best season, completing a career-best 64.0 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating of 95.8 ranks seventh in the league.

Smith threw for 242 yards - his second-most of the season - in last week's victory, and coach Jim Harbaugh continues to staunchly defend his quarterback.

"Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy," Harbaugh said. "He, once again, goes out and plays great football and keeps proving it. That's what the guy's about and I have a ton of respect for him as a player."

Running back Frank Gore, who suffered a right knee injury in the second quarter against the Giants, practiced Thursday and expects to face the Cardinals.

Gore had his franchise-record streak of five straight games with 100 or more yards rushing end last week. He has 7,196 career rushing yards and needs 149 to pass late Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for the most in 49ers history.

Gore ran for 167 yards - the third-most of his career - in his last home game against Arizona, a 24-9 win Dec. 14, 2009.