NFL Nation: Cardinals-49ers 121409

Cardinals can afford to shrug off defeat

December, 15, 2009
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireSan Francisco's defensive line made it a hard night for Kurt Warner and the Cardinals.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers might have felt worse than the Arizona Cardinals after completing a season sweep of their NFC West rival.

Their 24-9 victory at Candlestick Park made their already excruciating defeat at Seattle a week earlier even more meaningful.

Had the 49ers won both games, they would be only a game back with three games to play. They would be relevant. The Cardinals, now 8-5 and two games ahead of the 49ers, would have to worry about them.

Instead, Arizona shrugged off its seven-turnover performance as a tough Monday night at the office. The Cardinals can win the division by beating Detroit and St. Louis over the next two weeks. They know they've got eight victories already and the 49ers, with a road trip to Philadelphia looming, can claim no more than nine.

"It's disappointing that in this venue on Monday night, we didn't play well," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "The division was never really that big a deal for us. If we take care of our business from here out, we will win the division. That is what is important."

The game could have been devastating for the Cardinals if Larry Fitzgerald's knee injury had been serious. Whisenhunt feared the worst when Fitzgerald left for the locker room. But the Pro Bowl wideout apparently suffered no serious damage. He returned to the game and was on the field in the final minutes, an unnecessary risk that worked out for Whisenhunt.

The 49ers see themselves as tougher and more physical than their Arizona rivals. Recent evidence provides ample validation.

"That is one of the teams I do respect," Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett said. "They play hard, they play physical and they stick to what they do."

San Francisco's defensive front seven -- Justin Smith, Parys Haralson and the emerging Ahmad Brooks in particular -- seems to have its way against the Cardinals' offensive line. Arizona's penchant for spreading the field and leaving offensive tackles without help in protection has played into the 49ers' sledgehammer mentality.

The 49ers know how to play the Cardinals better than other teams with similar or even greater talent play Arizona.

"It feels amazing," 49ers guard David Baas said. "Our backs were against the wall and we wanted to come out and show everybody what the 49ers were about, regardless of record and that stuff. We beat Arizona twice and I truly think that we are the best team in the NFC West."

The 49ers are certainly the best team in the NFC West against Arizona. But they also found themselves leading by a single score in the fourth quarter even after forcing five turnovers. They scored 17 of their points on drives that began at the Arizona 28-yard line or closer.

San Francisco, pass-happy in recent weeks, finally revisited its base offense with Frank Gore and sometimes fullback Moran Norris. Gore carried 25 times for 167 yards and a touchdown behind an offensive line that has quietly shown improvement in recent weeks. It was enough to mask quarterback Alex Smith's inconsistent play -- two touchdowns, two interceptions, a meager 4.1 yards per attempt -- thanks largely to the seven turnovers San Francisco forced.

"I'm very excited about our team," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said.

Brooks' three-sack performance stood out. He and free safety Dashon Goldson each forced two fumbles. It's tough to fully evaluate an offensive line's performance, but center Eric Heitmann seemed to control the middle well for the 49ers, clearing lanes for Gore.

This was a step forward for the 49ers, and a temporary step back for Arizona.

"We got a piece of humble pie today," Dockett said. "I can't say we didn't fight, but they outplayed us. Sometimes you need those types of games to get you right where you need to be."

There's no question the 49ers' physical style forced quite a few of the turnovers. There's also no question the Cardinals will protect the football better than this most of the time. They tend to respond well following disappointing performances.

They ran the ball surprisingly well when they weren't putting it on the ground. Beanie Wells carried 15 times for 79 yards and a touchdown after 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis declared the Cardinals' ground game dead on arrival.

Wells' physical, hard-nosed running will probably carry over into future games more than the turnovers, which tend to come and go. Wells looks like a potential star and his running will open up big plays in the passing game when Arizona needs them in the playoffs.

"We've got to find a way to answer what [the 49ers] do to us because they have had some success against us recently," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "You tip your hat to them tonight. But like I said, we've got things ahead of us that we've got to go and accomplish now. We have to put this one behind

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 24, Cardinals 9

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals played horribly Monday night and the 49ers had a lot to do with their struggles during their 24-9 victory.

The 49ers' mostly average pass-rushers become dominant ones when they face Arizona. This probably cannot be explained rationally. It's just NFC West law.

The 49ers can beat the Cardinals -- twice this season -- but they have not yet shown they can defeat enough of the other teams to make it matter in the standings.

What should matter most to the 49ers this December, barring a miracle playoff run that might require Arizona losses to the Rams and Lions, is developing quarterback Alex Smith for next season.

Smith started quickly Monday night, but he made erratic throws and turned over the ball twice. By game's end, the 49ers appeared much better off handing the ball to Gore and watching him pound away.

This development might have been specific to this game against this opponent.

But the sloppy and exceedingly generous Cardinals provided Smith an excellent opportunity to demonstrate his compatibility with Gore. The two haven't produced at a high level in the same game this season. Gore did his part, but Smith could not capitalize consistently.

The Cardinals likely will not suffer this many turnovers (7) again anytime soon. They must feel fortunate that Larry Fitzgerald's injury was not serious, and that they will not be seeing the 49ers again anytime

Cardinals lose Gandy for rest of game

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jeremy Bridges is in the game at left tackle for Arizona after Mike Gandy aggravated a pelvic injury.

Bridges has played better than Gandy lately, so this move could help the Cardinals.

Fitzgerald back in game for Arizona

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals can breathe a little easier now that Larry Fitzgerald is back on the field and playing.

Arizona also has plenty of time to win this game if the team can score a touchdown on this drive.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals are calling Larry Fitzgerald's injury a right knee sprain, listing his return as questionable.

I suspect this means the team doesn't know the full extent of the injury. Tests will tell the team more, presumably.

Fitzgerald left the field for the locker room.

With Fitzgerald hurt, offense changing

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- This could be the dawn of the Beanie Wells-era in Arizona.

The Cardinals have lost Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald, at least temporarily, to a leg injury that was unpleasant to look at (team trainers appear to be testing his knee on the sideline).

Wells ran for gains of 5, 12, 9, 11 and 7 yards during the Cardinals' drive to open the second half. Tim Hightower lost a fumble earlier.

Arizona has wanted to become more of a running team. The team might be wise to move in that direction if Fitzgerald is out for any period of time.

Fitzgerald is limping toward the locker room.

How the 49ers can be 10-6 next season

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Somehow, some way, the 49ers must find a way to schedule the Cardinals 16 times next season.

I think they might win 10 of them, or perhaps more.

The Cardinals get the ball to start the second half, trailing 17-0. Think they'll turn it over?

Cardinals can't trust anyone with football

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- So, the Cardinals cannot trust Tim Hightower or Kurt Warner with the football.

They could always direct snap to Beanie Wells, except he's muffed a few pitchouts this season, so it's tough for Arizona to have confidence in him.

How about getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald every so often? Perhaps Antrel Rolle can throw to him.

Three first-half questions on Cards-49ers

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Have the 49ers scored enough points, 10, off all these Cardinals turnovers? A 10-point deficit is nothing for Arizona if the Cardinals protect the ball.

What was referee Jerome Boger thinking when he determined Larry Fitzgerald did not catch that pass near the 49ers' goal line? Sure looked like a 45-yard reception or a 46-yard touchdown, although I could not see every aspect of the play. It's nice when referees explain things. Boger is having a rough night so far.

Have the 49ers discovered how to work Frank Gore into their new-look offense? It's looking that way. Gore has run effective from base personnel. The 49ers have gone away from their base personnel in recent weeks. It's back with in a big way so far in this game.

Ball might be safest in Warner's hands

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals cannot entirely trust either of their primary running backs with the football.

Looks like it's time to put the ball in Kurt Warner's hands after Tim Hightower lost that fumble to set up a 49ers touchdown. Warner has 12 touchdown passes without an interception in his last four games.

Ware's absence could put Cards in bind

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals do not expect Matt Ware to return after the backup safety suffered a knee injury.

Ware's absence hurt the Cardinals previously this season, including against the 49ers in Week 1.

With Ware out of the game, strong safety Adrian Wilson failed to adjust properly, and allowed Frank Gore to escape uncovered for a touchdown reception.

Dockett's pick helps Pro Bowl chances

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett deserves strong consideration for the Pro Bowl this season.

The play he just made against the 49ers -- batting Alex Smith's pass at the line, then picking it off -- isn't an easy play for a defensive lineman.

Dockett has seven sacks this season. He has already hit Smith once in this game, knocking down the quarterback.

49ers' Smith convincing with cadence

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals' unfamiliarity with Alex Smith's cadence appears to be the reason for Arizona's repeated offside penalties.

Smith has done a good job drawing opponents across the line this season.

Showcase game for 49ers' Vernon Davis

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Vernon Davis has more touchdown receptions than fellow NFC tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten combined.

Davis averages 12.4 yards per catch, about 2 yards more than Gonzalez or Witten.

Davis has the yardage and touchdown numbers to merit Pro Bowl honors. Pumping up his catch numbers would help Davis' cause.

Gonzalez, Witten and the Saints' Jeremy Shockey enjoy advantages over Davis in name recognition, but Davis has arguably been a more dynamic downfield weapon than any of them. The Monday night stage affords him an ideal opportunity to state his case.

Pro Bowl balloting for coaches and players begins next week.

Gandy active, will start for Cardinals

December, 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Gandy is active and will start at left tackle for the Cardinals after backup Jeremy Bridges helped hold Vikings pass-rusher Jared Allen to zero sacks in Week 13.

Bridges will serve in the No. 2 role. Gandy missed the Minnesota game after suffering a pelvic injury. The 49ers gave Gandy problems in the season opener.

The Cardinals listed the following players inactive: Greg Toler, Reggie Walker, Will Davis, Herman Johnson, Brandon Keith, Stephen Spach and Jerheme Urban. Brian St. Pierre is the third quarterback.



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