Running back Andre Ellington breaks off a run during Sunday's 32-20 loss in San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO – The early turnovers, the Cardinals were able to handle. The late ones, they could not.
That was Sunday very simply for the Cardinals, after a 32-20 loss to the 49ers in their final trip to Candlestick Park. They played better than they had in a few years in San Francisco, but in the end, "I don't give a damn about playing close," coach Bruce Arians said.
Larry Fitzgerald and Alfonso Smith both fumbled the ball away late in the game, and in between the 49ers ground out an 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive. The combination was deadly, and it left the Cardinals frustrated heading to a short week before hosting Seattle on Thursday Night Football.
"I'm not going to sleep at all," Fitzgerald said. "I let my team down."
Said Arians, "We had the game in hand. … It was self-inflicted wounds."
On top of everything, defensive end Calais Campbell was wheeled off on a stretcher late in the game after
feeling numbness and tingling in his extremities. Campbell did have movement however, and while Arians had no further update, Campbell's sister tweeted that Campbell was "doing OK."
The game was a whirlwind of important moments. Twice early the Cardinals (3-3) overcame bad Carson Palmer interceptions when the defense rose up to stone the 49ers (4-2) and forced field goals deep in the red zone. Cardinals safety Yeremiah Bell grabbed his first interception at his own 1-yard line only to have San Francisco turn it into a safety moments later.
Tight end Vernon Davis had seven catches for a career-high 171 yards and two touchdowns for the 49ers in the first half alone, and Fitzgerald battled through a bad right hamstring to have a season-best 117 yards on six catches.
But the game ultimately turned on a late sequence that started with Fitzgerald's fumble.
The Cardinals were playing arguably their best quarter of the season in the third. Mixing in the run well – the Cards ran for a season-high 109 yards – the Cards had already cut the lead to 22-20 on a Michael Floyd touchdown catch when they embarked on their second long drive of the quarter.
Fitzgerald gained eight yards on a catch on a play from the San Francisco 31, but 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis punched the ball loose from behind and the Niners recovered on their own 11.
Eighteen plays and 89 yards later – many of which were runs between the tackles – San Francisco punched it a touchdown that provided a nine-point bulge. Arians didn't want to hear about the defense wearing down.
"There's no such thing as running out of gas," Arians said. "Just kick somebody's ass and you'll be alright. You'll get off the field."
Two plays after that, Smith fumbled away his only carry of the game, and the Cards – having withstood the Palmer picks – were done.
"It was a hard-fought game and we gave everything we (expletive) had," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "We just fell short. We won't make excuses. They beat us. It's over. We got a short (expletive) week.
"There have been times in my career we have been (in San Francisco) and you just don't feel like you're going to win. This game, we came in confident. Physically, we matched up. It sucks."
Andre Ellington led the Cards with 56 yards rushing on seven carries and Rashard Mendenhall added 40 more on 10 carries. Frank Gore gained 101 yards rushing on 25 carries as the 49ers gained 149 yards on the ground against the league's third-ranked rush defense.
The Cardinals understood this was going to be a difficult week. There is little time to prepare for the Seahawks, but for the first time the Cards will play a Thursday game at home.
But it will be hard to get past the idea the Cardinals messed up an opportunity Sunday by the Bay. It makes the game against the Seahawks crucial if the plan is to stay in the NFC West race.
"When momentum was starting to get on our side a little bit," Palmer said. "We couldn't hold on to the ball.
"You can't come into a place like this and play against a team like this and do that and expect to win."