SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The Cardinals didn't win on Sunday, but they found – again – another piece of what they will eventually need to earn more victories.
The 35-16 loss was headed for something much worse. All-world 49ers running back Christian McCaffery had four touchdowns and surely will leave defensive coordinator Nick Rallis scrambling to find a response the next time the teams play later this season.
Such a game could have been derailed early. It did derail the last time the teams played in Mexico last season. These are the steps this team must take.
"You're never happy after an 'L'" tackle D.J. Humphries said. "But knowing you have some guys in your foxhole that are willing to fight and scratch and claw, that's always good to know.
"But happy? No, never."
Coach Jonathan Gannon acknowledged after the margin for error isn't great against a team like San Francisco.
"I appreciate the fight and the effort," Gannon said. "We have to play cleaner execution-wise, cleaner with our brains, to beat that football team."
McCaffery had 177 total yards – 106 rushing – as the Cardinals (1-3) felt the loss of injured defensive starters L.J. Collier, Josh Woods, Jonathan Ledbetter, and Budda Baker. Then again, the 49ers (4-0) have their offense working to perfection at the moment, and the players on the other side may not change much.
Quarterback Brock Purdy, who still hasn't lost a game he has started with the 49ers, threw only one incompletion in 21 attempts, for 283 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers scored at least 30 points again, doing so in the first four games for the first time in franchise history. The last NFL team to do that? The Cardinals in 2021.
"They had some good schemes up like they always do," Gannon said. "We didn't get it to third down enough against a good football team. It's hard to keep points on the board when you do that."
The 2023 Cardinals are getting pretty good quarterback play themselves. Dobbs completed 28-of-41 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for another 48 yards (and finishing with 12 rushing attempts, one more than running back James Conner.)
Dobbs' second TD pass to Michael Wilson – also Wilson's second -- sliced the lead to one score in the late third quarter, capping an impressive 99-yard drive that changed the game.
Yet the 49ers strung out and shut down Conner's sweep to try and score a two-point conversion (with only 10 defenders on the field), and the score stayed at 21-16. It was as close as the Cardinals could get.
"We got killed early on, we had some penalties, and then they just spotted the ball well on us in open areas of the field," linebacker Zaven Collins said.
"We didn't fold over. We didn't quit."
Wilson had seven catches for 76 yards and Hollywood Brown had seven for 96, although 49ers receiver and ASU product Brandon Aiyuk found those "open areas" Collins cited many times, piling up 148 yards on six catches.
The way both teams held the ball meant the Cardinals only had seven possessions, and the last one came after the 49ers had put the game out of reach.
"It is a learning opportunity, a growth opportunity," Dobbs said. "We need to start quicker.
"We fight as a team," he added. "Things aren't going to go perfect."