SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Candlestick Park in Week 11:
What it means: The 49ers can clinch the NFC West title with a victory at Baltimore and a Seattle loss to Washington. They improved to 9-1 while securing their first winning season since 2002. They have won eight in a row, the fourth-longest streak since 1970 for a team with a rookie head coach. This was an ugly victory, particularly for the 49ers' offense. That's not a bad thing entirely, however. Coach Jim Harbaugh will suffer no shortage of coaching points heading into a much-anticipated game at Baltimore. The Cardinals were worse on offense, making it easier politically for them to transition back to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, provided Kolb's foot and toe injuries heal enough for him to practice this week.
What I liked: The 49ers continued to win with field position and turnovers. Receiver Michael Crabtree played a strong game, breaking tackles and picking up yards after the catch. The 49ers' yards after the catch have plummeted overall this season. Crabtree's average YAC had fallen from 5.4 last season to 3.9 through Week 10 this season. He pumped up those numbers Sunday and won his matchups against the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson.
Another 49ers receiver, Kyle Williams, also enjoyed a strong game. Williams showed sure hands making catches away from his body. He also caught a scoring pass. The 49ers played suffocating defense, allowing their offense and special teams a fat margin for error. Patrick Willis, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson picked off passes. The offense kept plugging away and finally got going. Frank Gore's knee was healthy enough for him to start and play effectively.
For the Cardinals, linebacker Stewart Bradley made a couple jarring tackles on special teams, including a memorable one against 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. Calais Campbell blocked a field goal for the fifth time in his career. The Cardinals' defense played well enough early to keep Arizona close.
What I didn't like: Skelton played his worst game of the season, serving up turnovers with inexplicable throws. He completed 6 of 19 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns and a 10.5 NFL passer rating. This might have been the worst performance by an NFC West quarterback this season, worse even than Charlie Whitehurst's game for Seattle at Cleveland. On defense, Peterson had issues in coverage, starting poorly when he slipped on the wet grass, allowing a big gain for Crabtree. For the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith was off-target and off-speed early in the game. Braylon Edwards dropped a couple of passes early. Then, when Edwards was open in the end zone, Smith threw too high and too hard for him. Smith also missed a wide-open Crabtree in the end zone, again throwing too hard. The 49ers' usually strong special teams faltered repeatedly. David Akers missed two field goal tries and had two more blocked, one by Campbell and one by Peterson. The 49ers incurred multiple penalties during returns.
Costly skirmish: Referee Peter Morelli ejected Goldson in the fourth quarter after Goldson threw punches at Cardinals receiver Early Doucet. Doucet had come over to Goldson while Goldson was down, hitting him in the head. The 49ers will now wait to see whether the NFL suspends Goldson for their Thursday night game at Baltimore. If that happens, the 49ers will presumably keep Madieu Williams active. Williams was named inactive Sunday. The 49ers kept Shawntae Spencer active instead.
Block party: The Cardinals blocked two field goal tries in the same game for the first time since a Sept. 17, 1972, game against the Baltimore Colts. They became the first team since Seattle on Oct. 23 to block more than one in an NFL game.
Empty at fullback: The 49ers lost fullback Bruce Miller to a head injury. Their other fullback, Moran Norris, has been sidelined with a leg injury. It's unclear whether San Francisco will have either player on a short week.
Upon further review: Harbaugh keeps challenging plays whether or not they are reviewable under the rules. After officials denied one request for review, Harbaugh successfully challenged whether Beanie Wells had fumbled. The 49ers took over possession and kicked a field goal for a 6-0 lead in the first quarter. That was Harbaugh's third successful challenge in eight coach-initiated reviews this season. Later, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt lost a challenge when he thought Smith's pass traveled backward. Whisenhunt has challenged seven plays this season, succeeding on four of them.
What's next: The 49ers visit Baltimore for a Thursday night game against the Ravens. The Cardinals visit St. Louis.