The 49ers try to tackle Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith as Smith returns a fumble Sunday during the Cards' 23-13 victory.
SAN FRANCISCO – Stuck in a halftime tie that shouldn't have been, the Cardinals adjusted their offense Sunday to throw the ball more often.
Then, after building a lead, they ran the ball, and ran, and ran some more, bleeding the clock.
And when it was over, the Cards owned a 23-13 road win over the 49ers at Candlestick Park. They also owned – albeit much too early to matter much – sole possession of first place in the NFC West.
"This is what happens," running back Edgerrin James said, "when you play together over and over."
The win wasn't from a textbook. Defensively it was close, after the Cardinals (1-0) came up with five turnovers and played havoc with new 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. But the 49ers still outgained the Cardinals, 291 yards to 285.
The difference wasn't that the Cardinals were spectacular offensively as much as they were relentless. The Cards had the ball for the first 22 offensive plays of the third quarter, scoring 10 points with a pooch kickoff that was fumbled back to the Cards in between the scores.
The Cardinals had the ball for 10 minutes and 57 seconds. And then, in the fourth quarter and the 49ers having closed the score to within a touchdown, quarterback Kurt Warner directed an 18-play field goal drive that drained another 10 minutes off the clock.
"Last year, we were so good throwing the football," Warner said. "But to be able to chew up the clock is critical."
It took 26 carries but James rushed for 100 yards. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, held to no catches in the first half, was an oft-intended target in the second half and caught eight passes for 82 yards.
Warner finished 19-of-30 for 197 yards, but most importantly, the Cards had no turnovers. Their control of the ball also forced the 49ers (0-1) to stop getting the ball to running back Frank Gore, who had 96 yards rushing on 14 carries and another four catches for 55 yards.
The Cardinals probably should have run away with a win. They forced an O'Sullivan interception (by safety Adrian Wilson), they forced and recovered a pair of fumbles (on a huge hit by Darnell Dockett and a patented strip by Bertrand Berry) and they recovered the pseudo-onside kick.
Yet the Cards were still nursing a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter because they simply couldn't turn those advantages into touchdowns.
The Cards' first drive – on a short field, no less, after a 17-yard Steve Breaston punt return – stalled at the San Francisco 7-yard line. Neil Rackers kicked a field goal.
The Dockett hit got a fumble loose at the San Francisco 11 just a couple plays later. Not only did the Cardinals fail to score a touchdown, but left tackle Mike Gandy got a bad personal foul on third down, drilling an unsuspecting 49er in the back. Rackers pushed the subsequent 35-yard field goal attempt right.
"We want to be disruptive," Berry said.
On the next series, though, Gore burst up the middle for a 41-yard touchdown run, and the Cardinals went from dominating to trailing on the scoreboard.
Warner said he never got comfortable in the first half. So the Cards came out throwing, on 11 of the first 13 offensive plays of the second half. That led to a field goal, and after the Cards got the fumbled kick, they were able to use balanced play calls the rest of the way.
"Whatever we need to do to win the game, whether it is throw the ball or run the ball, we want to be able to do that," Boldin said.
With the Rams losing in Philadelphia and the Seahawks losing in Buffalo, the Cardinals are the only NFC West team with a win.
"It's great to be in first place," Whisenhunt said. "Now the challenge is to hold on to that."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 9/7/08.