By Morris Phillips
For three quarters the granite-built pecking order in the NFC West looked like it was scheduled for a remodel. But in the fourth quarter, the status quo reappeared in a big way.
The Cardinals and 49ers were engaged a tense battle through three quarters with Arizona actually leading 7-6 early and trailing just 22-20 after three quarters, but then the 49ers scooped up a couple of orphaned footballs—one late in the third quarter with the Cardinals driving and another in the fourth—to race away with a 32-20 win.
“I think we’re just playing 49er football and that’s something that we add to our game is just turnovers, turnovers, turnovers,” NaVorro Bowman said. “It’s starting to pan out for us.”
“There’s nothing to take from ‘about coming close’ or any of that stuff. We were here to win. We had the game in our hand.”
The 49ers and Cardinals entered with identical 3-2 records as the NFC champs have been somewhat disappointing and Arizona a bit of a surprise. Coming into the season, the 49ers and Seahawks were tabbed the NFC’s best Super Bowl bets and the class of the division with the Cardinals and Rams hoping to show improvement. But on Sunday, the Seahawks trailed at the half at home to Tennessee and the 49ers were locked up with Arizona. Had those trends continued, the NFC West could have fallen into a three-way tie at the top with the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals all at 4-2.
But then the Cardinals started shooting themselves in the foot, starting with an unlikely candidate in All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. With Arizona driving late in the third quarter trailing by just two, Fitzgerald coughed it up after a short gain and 49ers’ safety Eric Reid was there to scoop it up at the 49ers’ 11-yard line.
“I’m not going to sleep at all,” Fitzgerald said. “I let my team down in that situation. I wish I could take it back.”
The 49ers got a huge first half with Vernon Davis (7 catches, 171 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Colin Kaepernick authoring big plays, but the 49ers bogged down in a scoreless third quarter. But Fitzgerald’s gaffe got the wheels churning again for San Francisco. The 49ers capped an 18-play drive that took nearly 10 minutes off the clock with Kendall Hunter running it in from six yards out. The lengthy drive put the 49ers in the driver seat and frustrated the Cardinals as witnessed by safety Tyrann Mathieu’s penalty on the play for slamming Hunter three steps after he entered the end zone.
Needing a response, Arizona got careless again. Just two plays later, Alfonso Smith fumbled and Bowman emerged from a pile with the ball at the Arizona 31 yard-line.
The 49ers used Smith’s fumble to add the final field goal, coming with four minutes remaining.
Arizona’s Calais Campbell suffered a back injury late in the fourth quarter and was carted off the field on a stretcher. No official word on his injury was available at press time, but he did have movement in his extremities and he told his teammates that were around him at the time that he thought he would be fine.
The 49ers travel to Nashville next Sunday for a meeting with the Titans at 1:05pm EST.