Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
SAN FRANCISCO -- Kurt Warner wore two days' growth on his jaw, a bandage across his nose and angry red markings between his eyebrows.
To the Arizona Cardinals, the former two-time MVP quarterback has rarely looked better.
Warner's performance during a 23-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers won't rank among the flashiest of his career. Far from it. And that was the point.
The Cardinals know Warner can sling the football around the field as aggressively as any quarterback in the league. They watched him toss 21 touchdown passes during the final eight games last season, more than Tom Brady or anyone else. But they also endured Warner's 17 interceptions last season, plus a dozen fumbles. They knew they might not challenge for a playoff spot this season without more disciplined quarterback play.
That's what the Cardinals liked about Warner's approach in solving a physical 49ers defense at Candlestick Park. No matter how badly Warner wanted to open up the offense, no matter how much he wanted to satisfy the gunslinger within, he resisted. Warner went without an interception or fumble for only the second time in 12 starts since Ken Whisenhunt arrived as head coach last season.
"We never really were completely flowing offensively," Warner said. "To be able to chew up the clock and get first downs and get points, it's critical in games like this where it's a dogfight, going back and forth and you may not have your best stuff."
Edgerrin James carried 26 times for 100 yards in typical James fashion -- without a run longer than 10 yards. Rookie running back Tim Hightower converted twice on fourth-and-1, including once for a touchdown that stretched the Cardinals' lead to 20-10 late in the third quarter.
And when the Cardinals needed Warner to make plays on third down, particularly in the second half, Warner delivered. The combination produced second-half scoring drives spanning 15 and 18 plays.
"I don't want to lose sight of the fact that we can [throw the ball aggressively]," Whisenhunt said. "The games are going to dictate what we do, but it's nice for us to be able to take the ball in the fourth quarter and take it down the field and take time off the clock and score points."
Warner had plenty of help from the Cardinals' defense and special teams, which combined to produce five turnovers. But a careless quarterback might have lost a road game such as this one. Warner took three sacks and a finger to his nose without losing his grip on the ball or the bigger picture.
"I felt like I was more reserved in the first half than I like to be," Warner said. "That is going to be a delicate balance for me. I don't want to turn the ball over, I don't want to take chances. But I also feel like sometimes I'm at my best when I'm ad-libbing and making plays."
The Cardinals made more of an effort to spread the field and pass the ball in the second half. The idea was to get Warner and his receivers in rhythm for the third-down throws that sustain drives in key situations.
Warner was at his best calmly finding Anquan Boldin for a 6-yard gain on third-and-5 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The conversion allowed the Cardinals to run the clock down to two minutes before Neil Rackers' 30-yard field goal stretched the lead to 23-13, severely reducing the 49ers' chances for recovery.
The Cardinals' defense appreciated the effort.
"Kurt is a very smart football player. He's very aware of some of the mistakes he has made in the past," defensive end Bert Berry said. "That is what good football players do: They adjust, they correct those mistakes and they don't put their teams in bad situations. He didn't do that and we were able to take advantage."
As Whisenhunt indicated, circumstances will force the Cardinals to take more chances in the passing game at times this season. They key for Warner is avoiding unnecessary mistakes. He learned to play aggressively under the freewheeling Mike Martz in St. Louis. With Martz on the 49ers' side as their new offensive coordinator, Warner took what the defense gave him, an admittedly foreign concept.
"That is one of the things I'm trying to learn," said Warner, 37. "Even at my age, there are things to learn and things I have to get better at. The bottom line, coach was like, 'If you are conservative and it means not taking a chance and not having a turnover, we're not going to argue with that.'
"We have to find that balance where I'm smart, but I can still be me and still make plays and do the things I need to do for this offense. That is going to be a balance for us all year."