49ers deny Cards league title
SAN FRANCISCO — The Arizona Cardinals threw away a chance to clinch a second straight NFC West crown.
Alex Smith threw touchdown passes after two of Arizona's seven turnovers, Frank Gore ran for 167 yards and another score and the San Francisco 49ers kept their slim playoff hopes alive with a dominant 24-9 victory Monday night.
With a relentless defensive attack, San Francisco forced the sloppy Cardinals into five first-half turnovers and kept Kurt Warner from finding a groove. Warner threw two interceptions in the opening half after going 130 passes without a pick.
Arizona (8-5) can still clinch the division by winning two of its final three games.
"Getting a win against a team playing great ball that had a chance to clinch the division, we came out and dominated," Gore said. "They let me get in the zone. Any back who gets in that zone, it's hard to stop them."
Gore had his most productive game since Week 2, running over a Cardinals defense that held Adrian Peterson to just 19 yards in a win against Minnesota last week. Gore was certainly motivated for a big night after getting only 30 yards on 22 carries in a season-opening victory at Arizona on Sept. 13.
Smith, coming off a loss at Seattle last week in which he threw for a career-high 310 yards, connected on TD passes to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and finished 19 of 35 for 144 yards. The 49ers (6-7) answered coach Mike Singletary's challenge to make a statement on the national stage against the reigning NFC champions.
The Cardinals had their second game with six or more turnovers of the season, much to the delight of the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park. The 49ers had a franchise-record five forced fumbles, two by safety Dashon Goldson.
"Each of our backs had a fumble. That's certainly not acceptable," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Obviously it was ugly for us. We're all disappointed and embarrassed."
Not long ago, San Francisco hoped this game would be for the division title, but the Niners had lost six of eight following a 3-1 start, including five straight road games by 19 total points since the victory at Arizona. They sure showed up for this one, on a night former San Francisco stars Steve Young and Jerry Rice worked the pregame show for ESPN on the sideline.
"I can't really express to you how proud I am of our team," Singletary said. "That was the thing we talked about all week: 'Let's go out and see how good we can be without killing ourselves.'"
Warner followed the best four-game stretch of his career with a dud — going 16 of 29 for 178 yards with two interceptions and being sacked four times. Warner, who joined Johnny Unitas as the only quarterbacks to post a passer rating of at least 120 in four straight games, had gone 130 passes without an interception before Goldson picked off a pass intended for Steve Breaston early in the second quarter. Warner later threw another.
And it didn't help matters the Cardinals lost star receiver Larry Fitzgerald early in the second half to a right knee injury after Goldson landed on him. He later returned.
The 49ers forced five turnovers in the first half for the first time since Sept. 14, 1997, against New Orleans. Arizona was shut out in a first half for the first time since Dec. 21, 2008, at New England.
Davis caught his 11th touchdown pass of the season, extending his franchise-record mark by a tight end. Crabtree's second career TD reception was a 35-yard catch 52 seconds before halftime. Joe Nedney added a 37-yard field goal.
Arizona finally got on the board on Neil Rackers' 48-yard field goal with 5:52 left in the third quarter, then Beanie Wells pounded into the end zone on an impressive second effort on fourth-and-goal from the 1 early in the final quarter. Ray McDonald blocked the extra-point attempt.
Arizona was out of sync from the start.
The Cardinals jumped offside on three of four snaps during the 49ers' opening drive, which was thwarted when Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tipped a batted pass to himself for an interception. San Francisco reviewed the call, but it stood as an interception. Smith had gone 99 attempts without throwing a pick.
San Francisco used up its second and final review of the game with 4:39 left in the first quarter, winning that one to give Dre' Bly a recovery of Tim Hightower's fumble and a first-and-goal at the 8 for the 49ers.
Smith threw a 5-yard TD strike to Davis two plays later for a 7-0 lead.
Crabtree wound up with five catches for 67 yards.
The 49ers swept the season series after Arizona did so in 2008. The teams haven't split their two annual meetings since each winning at home in 2003, with the 49ers capturing both matchups in 2004 and '07 and Arizona taking each in 2005 and '06.
San Francisco played without left tackle Joe Staley, who worked out hard on the field before the game and had hoped to return after spraining his right knee Nov. 1 at Indianapolis.