SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As hard as it is to believe, the San Francisco 49ers could have been 3-2 heading into a long weekend with extra time to heal from myriad injuries. You don't have to believe it, because it isn't the case.
For the second week in a row, the 49ers let a winnable game slip through their fingers as they lost to the Arizona Cardinals 33-21 on Thursday night at Levi's Stadium. It's the Niners' fourth consecutive loss, dropping them to 1-4.
Unlike last week, when the Niners could point to officiating and injuries for coming up short to Dallas, San Francisco had nobody to blame but itself after a trio of costly turnovers and a silly penalty gave the Cardinals a lead they would not relinquish.
"When you're playing this team, you're minus-three in the turnover category, probably you're not going to win the football game," 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. "It's very rare statistically when you look at it to be minus-three and think you're going to win the football game. And, obviously, at critical times.
"I think all three of our turnovers occurred in [our] red zone, which is even worse and it took them 41 yards to get 17 points out of it. So against a good team like Arizona, that's not going to cut it."
Working with a roster short on the type of high-end talent necessary to be a contender, the 49ers entered the season working with a margin for error among the slimmest in the NFL. That gap hasn't widened in recent weeks as the 49ers played Thursday night without linebacker NaVorro Bowman, cornerback Jimmie Ward and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
But as cruel as the injury gods have been to the 49ers, they've also attempted to even things out. Dallas played last week without starting quarterback Tony Romo, left tackle Tyron Smith and wide receiver Dez Bryant. The Cardinals came in Thursday night with Drew Stanton at quarterback instead of Carson Palmer, who is dealing with a concussion.
Those injuries helped level the playing field against two teams most would say are more talented than the Niners. But none of that matters if the Niners beat themselves as they did on Thursday night.
"That’s a good defense, but we did a lot of stuff to stop ourselves today," left tackle Joe Staley said. "You can’t lose the turnover battle 3-0 and expect to win the game. It’s very, very hard to do that whether you’re at home or on the road. We put ourselves in a hole right there."
Carrying a 7-0 lead into the first half's closing moments, 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert let go of a third-down pass over the middle intended for tight end Garrett Celek, but it was deflected by Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell intercepted it at San Francisco's 21. On the next play, Stanton hit receiver Larry Fitzgerald for a 21-yard touchdown. Just like that, it was 7-7 going into the locker room.
Instead of a spirited response, 49ers kick returner Chris Davis coughed up a fumble on the opening kick of the third quarter. Arizona pounced on it at the Niners' 14. Just when the defense seemed to at least hold the Cardinals to a field goal, 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson ran into kicker Chandler Catanzaro, drawing a flag and giving Arizona new life. On the next play, running back David Johnson scored from 4 yards out to give the Cardinals a 14-7 lead.
Even after falling behind 21-7, the Niners found themselves back within seven points and with the ball for a potential game-tying drive. Instead, Gabbert overthrew Jeremy Kerley and Cardinals cornerback Marcus Cooper came up with the interception. Arizona managed a field goal to extend the lead to 24-14.
"It’s extremely frustrating," Gabbert said. "I let this team and this organization down tonight and did not play good whatsoever, and that’s on me. I had two crucial turnovers there that led to points for the Cardinals and that was the difference in the game right there. I got to do a better job protecting the football and leading this team to scoring more points and winning games.”
For most of the night, the Cardinals and Stanton struggled to move the ball. No matter, as the Niners gifted them 17 points in a game where points were hard to come by, especially early.
Not many teams in the NFL are able to overcome such mistakes. Those that are usually find themselves playing deep into January. But if it wasn't already obvious, Thursday night's game hammered home the point: the Niners aren't one of those teams and aren't likely to become one anytime soon.