Cardinals find a way despite shortcomings

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- An emerging NFC West contender flush with Super Bowl dreams struggled against a San Francisco 49ers team with two victories all season.

This wasn't the first time.

History says the Arizona Cardinals shouldn't panic following their severely flawed 29-24 victory over the 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium. The road to legitimacy isn't always an easy one.

Arizona need not look beyond its division for evidence.

In 2005, the eventual NFC champion Seattle Seahawks barely held off Ken Dorsey and the 49ers in Week 11. The Seahawks' record entering the game was 8-2. The 49ers were 2-7 and headed nowhere. Seattle escaped with a 27-25 victory after the 49ers failed on a two-point try with 28 seconds remaining.

The 49ers were at it again Monday night, with Shaun Hill playing the role of Dorsey as San Francisco lined up at the Arizona 2-yard line on the final play of the game.

The Cardinals (6-3) stopped fullback Michael Robinson at the 1. They'll take a four-game division lead to Seattle in Week 11 before returning home to face the New York Giants.

"If you win enough games in the NFL, you are not going to always blow an opponent out," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "You have to win some close games. We have to learn to do that and tonight I think was an important step."

Ten more things we learned about the Cardinals and 49ers:

1. The 49ers wasted half a season.
The offense San Francisco unveiled against the Cardinals is one the 49ers should have tried long before J.T. O'Sullivan suffered 11 interceptions and six lost fumbles.

General manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan built the 49ers to run the ball behind a big, physical offensive line lacking in agility.

Everyone knew it, but the 49ers' desperation for a credible offensive coordinator led them to Mike Martz. The hiring was defensible, but Martz needed a filter.

Nolan seemed to give Martz autonomy. The 49ers became more exciting, but their philosophy didn't match their personnel. They utilized Gore, but they did so within the framework of an offense built to strike downfield. Nolan lost his job along the way.

Interim coach Mike Singletary has brought sensibility to the offense by benching O'Sullivan and recasting Gore as the focal point of a run-oriented offense.

The 49ers ran the ball on their first five plays Monday night. Gore finished with 23 carries for 99 yards. He came up just short of the winning touchdown late in the game, but giving him the ball still gives the 49ers their best chance.

2. The Cardinals' offense owns third quarters.
Arizona entered Monday night having scored 13 touchdowns in 21 drives that began during the third quarters of games this season. No other team had more than nine.

Arizona had scored touchdowns on 61.9 percent of those drives. The Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints ranked a distant second at 39.10 percent each.

The Cardinals produced a touchdown and field goal on three drives starting in the third quarter Monday night.

"We didn't win the [coin] toss tonight, but some of the time we've been deferring so we get the opportunity to start the second half [on offense]," Whisenhunt said. "We just went into a little bit of our no-huddle mode to start the second half and move the ball down the field. "

3. Mike Singletary was no punch line.
The 49ers' strong performance with nothing on the line restored whatever credibility their interim coach squandered with his pants around his ankles during that ill-fated halftime speech in Week 8.

Singletary is always going to be emotional. That's his nature. He controlled those emotions more effectively during his postgame news conference Monday night.

No matter how refreshing a coach's raw emotion might feel for long-suffering fans, the head coach must show self-control before he can control 53 players.

Singletary took a step in the right direction during his second game in his new role.

4. The 49ers match up well with Arizona.
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said so after the game. The matchups appear most favorable in the red zone.

Arizona has scored touchdowns on five of 13 red-zone trips against the 49ers this season. The Cardinals have scored 20 touchdowns on 31 red-zone trips against their other opponents.

"If we do what we're supposed to do down there, it's not a game," Whisenhunt said. "That's something we've been very good at and you have to compliment these guys. But we just didn't execute. We'll continue to look at it and change maybe some of the things that we are doing.

"But you know what? I'll take the win any day."

5. Tony Corrente can take over a game.
The veteran referee and crew assessed 10 penalties against each team. The teams declined three more penalties.

Officials threw four additional flags, only to wave off each penalty.

Both head coaches sought to avoid fines while discussing the unusual calls.

Whisenhunt: "There were a number of calls in the game, especially late in the game, that really went back and forth."

Singletary: "I don't want to go to the officiating side or say anything because I need to look at it and I need to really sit down and analyze it. There was just too much going on. It seemed like it got crazy, got out of hand at the end of the game, at the most critical time. It just really got sloppy."

A penalty against the Cardinals for pass interference turned into a non-call when Corrente determined Arizona had tipped Hill's pass. When Singletary tried to challenge whether the Cardinals tipped the ball, Corrente disallowed the challenge, explaining that the defender and receiver had simply gotten their feet tangled.

There had been no penalty, after all, rendering the rest of the play "immaterial" in Corrente's view.

6. The Cardinals can't run the ball on their own terms.
Tim Hightower's 109 yards against
the St. Louis Rams in Week 9 signaled an end to Edgerrin James' career as the starting running back in Arizona. The performance did not signal the Cardinals' sudden emergence as a consistently strong running team.

Hightower carried 13 times for 22 yards. He suffered another failed third-and-1 carry to continue a recent trend.

A replay reversal wiped out a lost fumble for the rookie. Hightower's knee was down before the ball came out.

7. The 49ers' Smith gives the Cardinals problems.
Justin Smith has earned his considerable free agent money in two games against Arizona this season.

He led the 49ers in tackles with seven when the teams met in Week 1. Smith also had one sack and three quarterback hits in that game.

The Cardinals didn't forget. Warner moved away from Smith on designed rollouts. When Warner stayed in the pocket, Smith made his presence felt. He finished with seven tackles, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed.

8. The 49ers can feel good about their young receivers.
Jason Hill caught seven passes for 84 yards. Josh Morgan caught four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.

The 49ers need to keep feeding both players over the second half of the season. Age prevents veteran Isaac Bruce from figuring into the team's plans. Developing Hill and Morgan into starters for 2009 has to be a priority.

Both players responded on the Monday night stage.

9. The Cardinals did not appear ready for prime time.
With Arizona's home crowd worked into a towel-waving frenzy, the Cardinals watched Allen Rossum return the opening kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown.

A festive atmosphere became tense. The Cardinals seemed to be waiting for a big play to spark them.

They hit on a couple, but too many little mistakes dragged them down.

Two examples:

  • Center Lyle Sendlein was wide left on a shotgun snap to Warner on an early third-and-3 play. Warner wasted time gathering the ball and hastily threw incomplete.

  • Right guard Deuce Lutui jumped early on a third-and-7 play during the Cardinals' third drive. This was Lutui's eighth penalty of the season and it was a costly one. Arizona failed to convert on third-and-12.

The Cardinals must pay closer attention to detail. Their four-game lead in the division is probably insurmountable, but this type of performance won't be good enough in the playoffs.

10. Nate Clements stepped up.
The 49ers' high-priced cornerback earned the right to celebrate after breaking up a critical pass to Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald late in the game.

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 49 yards, a 6.1-yard average.

The 49ers had no answer for Steve Breaston, demonstrating again the difficulty of shutting down the Cardinals' passing game. Warner passed for 328 yards and three touchdowns with a 121.9 passer rating.