Smith, Leinart wake up when everybody else is asleep

SAN FRANCISCO -- Prime-time stardom, at least the West Coast variety, awaited two young quarterbacks on Monday. Arizona's Matt Leinart and San Francisco's Alex Smith are the kind of players who should've provided a nice closing act for the NFL's opening weekend.

As it turned out, Leinart and Smith missed their chance to shine. Leinart failed to find his targets. Smith failed to find his passing rhythm. Through three quarters, they ran offenses that had more rushing than passing yards and essentially put a nation to sleep with their incompletions and missteps.

Not until the East Coast had reached the wee hours of Tuesday morning did the two finally unveil their best work in the 49ers' 20-17 come-from-behind win.

Leinart directed a 58-yard touchdown drive in which he threw only one pass -- a 5-yard score to Anquan Boldin -- while, believe it or not, setting up the score with a 20-yard run. That drive gave the Cards a 17-13 lead with 6:40 left. Considering that Smith's three-and-out offense was striking out with more regularity than Dave Kingman, the lead seemed safe.

But then the 49ers executed one of the strangest 86-yard drives in Monday night history.

The drive featured a 25-yard run by Smith on fourth-and-1 and was marred by Darrell Jackson letting a perfectly thrown 45-yard touchdown pass go right through his hands. "I lost my chance to get on ESPN," Jackson said of his end zone drop -- the same end zone, by the way, in which Dwight Clark made "The Catch."

OK, so no one's confusing Smith's 86-yard drive with any of those fashioned by Joe Montana. But the young QB did show good leadership.

After the Jackson drop on second-and-1 from the Cardinals 45, Smith made sure his teammates refocused on getting a first down. The 49ers had time on the clock (1:37). He talked them through the next two incompletions, and then scrambled down the left sidelines to set up the 49ers at the 20-yard line with 1:23 left.

"I felt I could make something happen with my feet and just get to the chains to get another set of downs," Smith said of his run. "I saw a lane over to the side and took it. The guys up front gave me some great blocks."

But the strangest play of this strange game came with 32 seconds left. Smith threw what could have been ruled an incompletion to Arnaz Battle at the Cardinals 1. Safety Terrence Holt reacted quickly to knock the ball from Battle's hands, but he was a tick slow. Officials decided both of Battle's feet touched the ground before the ball came out.

Replay officials didn't call down for a replay review, puzzling many sideline observers -- including Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

"The big thing this year is they instituted a rule where if you get two feet down, it's considered a catch," Whisenhunt said. "The officials came in and discussed that. I don't know if that's what happened, but I know that they did change that."

A replay on the scoreboard put the catch in question, but the 49ers' scoreboard operator wisely didn't show a second replay. Thus, the officials ruled a catch and fumble -- but since the ball was recovered by Jackson in the end zone, it was spotted at the 1-yard line to adhere to the rule that an offense can't advance and score on a fumble.

Battle then scored the game-winning 1-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left, ending the 49ers' four-game losing streak to the Cardinals.

"This team played hard so we never gave up," Smith said. "We struggled all night. It was frustrating on offense. Our guys stepped it up in the final drive. We never quit believing and never stopped knowing that we were going to pull it out and win the game. I am so proud of this team."

As far as passing efficiency, Smith and Leinart qualified more for a CSI crime drama than prime-time entertainment. Frankly, it would take a forensics team to spot any life in these passing attacks.

Leinart completed 14 of 28 passes for 102 yards. He opened the game with an interception when 49ers cornerback Walt Harris jumped a quick turn-in to Larry Fitzgerald that Harris read like a novel. It set up a game-opening touchdown.

Leinart's passes were high and off target. Like Smith, he couldn't get into a rhythm.

"I was very disappointed with the way I played," Leinart said. "I've got to get better. We play San Francisco again later this year, and I can't afford to play like this again if we are to win. It starts with me. I didn't get the ball to the right guy when I needed to. I struggled to get my rhythm.

"I started off the game a little antsy but I was able to settle down in the second half. When you're struggling with the passing game like we were, they were able to put more men in the box to stop the run."

Running was about all the Cardinals could do. They rushed for 161 yards on 38 carries, a tribute to Whisenhunt's emphasis on running the ball and Russ Grimm's offensive line scheme. The Cardinals even survived a second-half knee injury that forced out center Al Johnson, who was replaced by undrafted rookie Lyle Sendlein.

Smith was worse than Leinart. Before the last drive, Smith was 6 of 22 for 66 yards. He had just 42 yards passing before completing 6-of-9 for 66 yards in pulling out the victory.

"The biggest thing I took from this is character and maturity," Smith said.

Added 49ers coach Mike Nolan: "All I can say is our guys won and theirs didn't."

Yeah, but did anyone stay up to see it?

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.