By Sam McPherson
The good news is that opposing teams now know they will not come into Levi’s Stadium and push the lowly San Francisco 49ers around, a lesson the NFC West leaders from Arizona found out on Sunday in a close 19-13 victory. The Cardinals scored the game winner late in the fourth quarter and got a lot more of a battle than they probably bargained for against a division doormat.
The bad news is that the 49ers still lost, dropping them to a 3-8 on the season. San Francisco continues to play spirited football at home, but the team’s talent levels due to injury and other issues just aren’t good enough on a regular basis to beat the best teams in the NFL that have come calling this season at Levi’s (Green Bay, Seattle, Arizona).
While quarterback Blaine Gabbert led the 49ers to 368 total yards on offense, the team was 0-for-9 on third downs. That led to a huge difference in time of possession in this game, which also affected the defense (see below). Gabbert himself played well enough, however: 25-for-36, 318 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That kind of effort gets the job done most days.
Two turnovers hurt the offense, of course, as did those barren third downs. Toss in the lack of a real running game—only 15 carries for 51 yards by running backs—and Gabbert couldn’t do it all by himself. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 93 yards, and tight end Vance McDonald pulled in six balls for 71 yards and a TD. Overall, Gabbert completed passes to six different receivers, but he couldn’t find the end zone enough. It’s hard to win when you can’t even score 14 points a game in this league.
Holding the Cardinals to 19 points alone should warrant a better grade than this, but the Arizona offense was gifted seven first downs via penalty. What the Cardinals didn’t gain on their own (337 yards), the 49ers defense handed them in penalty yardage. As a result, the Arizona offense was 7-for-14 on third downs, and that may have been the difference in the ballgame as the Cardinals held the ball for 37:27 overall. That just wore out the S.F. defenders by the late fourth quarter when Arizona marched down the field for the go-ahead TD.
Cardinals QB Carson Palmer had a pedestrian game, throwing for only 271 yards without a TD toss. But he scrambled for the game-winning score, and again, the 49ers couldn’t stop committing dumb penalties. Overall, S.F. committed 13 penalties for 81 yards, and while all those were not on the defense, gifting seven first downs via penalty is never, ever a good thing.
Special Teams: A
Kicker Phil Dawson gave the team a huge boost right before halftime with his 52-yard field goal. That left the 49ers trailing by just three points at the time, and it clearly gave the team confidence for the second half in terms of hanging with the division leaders. Dawson may end up being the team’s highest scorer this season, in truth.
Again, Head Coach Jim Tomsula and his staff deserve props for getting the 49ers up for this home game against a vastly superior opponent. San Francisco is a much better team at home (although that begs the question of why the team can’t replicate the effort on the road), and the fans really were supporting the team today despite a secondary market that featured $35 tickets. However, the recklessness of the defense when it came to penalties demonstrates an inability to rein this team’s emotions in when it matters. Tomsula gets the team fired up, obviously, but perhaps they are too fired up at times—and it cost them a potential win Sunday.
Bring On The Bears
Next up is a road trip to the Windy City to face the Chicago Bears, coming off a win in Green Bay against the Packers. The Bears are 5-6 on the outside looking in at the NFC playoff picture. Chicago needs a win, and the 49ers are winless on the road. It should be an interesting week for San Francisco.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.