Running back Andre Ellington bursts up the middle for 20 yards on the play that sealed the Cardinals' win over San Francisco Sunday.
The rally, perhaps, was inevitable because that's just who the Cardinals are this season.
Bruce Arians' team has turned the second half into its own personal playground, shaving away deficits and turning them into wins like it's no big deal. Arians himself quipped Sunday "play the first 30 minutes, just add up the score and see what we need to do to win it."
Arians had reason to be giddy, his team having just knocked off NFC West rival (maybe) San Francisco, 23-14, at University of Phoenix Stadium after trailing 14-6 at halftime. The Cardinals had only beaten the 49ers once in their previous 10 tires, and now go into their bye week with a 3-0 record, a two-game lead on the 49ers (1-2) and confidence built on three second-half comebacks.
"I love the resiliency of our football team," Arians said.
"Everything is not going to come easy," Arians added. "The harder they get, the easier they are for us now."
Drew Stanton, making his second start because of Carson Palmer's shoulder injury, played well, completing
18-of-33 passes for 244 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to rookie John "Smokey" Brown that gave the Cardinals the win. Stanton also was tough, taking a handful of hard shots during the game and playing better as the game went along.
Brown joined Michael Floyd (five catches, 114 yards) as the receiving stars as Arians exploited San Francisco's undermanned secondary.
But it wouldn't have been possible if the Cardinals hadn't found a way to slow down a San Francisco offense after an excellent start. The 49ers were without tight end Vernon Davis, so used a hurry-up tempo with four- and five-receiver sets to methodically go on two 80-yard, time-consuming touchdown drives on their first two possessions of the game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the centerpiece, either throwing quick passes for gains or using his feet to gain yards.
Kaepernick was very good – he finished the game with 13 carries for 54 yards to lead the Niners , while completing 29-of-37 passes for 245 yards in the game – but early on, he seemed unstoppable.
"We kind of panicked a little bit, not playing in the confines of our defense," safety Tony Jefferson acknowledged. "We settled down."
After the two touchdowns and 160 yards, though, the 49ers managed just 158 yards the rest of the game. The closest San Francisco came to a score was a field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, and the 45-yard try was blocked by defensive lineman Tommy Kelly.
"A team beats you nine out of 10 meetings, man, you get tired of getting punched in the face," said Kelly,
who was also part of a line that contained Kaepernick in the second half. "It seemed like when we punched back, they were kind of like, 'Whoa. What's going on?' "
No one was actually punching between the teams, but it got rough. The 49ers ended up getting a handful of personal fouls called, including a headbutt of Jefferson by former Cardinal wide receiver Anquan Boldin and a nasty hit by linebacker Dan Skuta on Stanton as Stanton started his slide after a scramble.
The 49ers – and Boldin in particular – were not happy with the rash of flags, but the Cardinals incorporated them into the comeback.
Stanton's first two touchdown passes since 2010 both went to Brown, and he would have had a third had he not overthrown a wide-open Jaron Brown in the fourth quarter.
At the time, the Cardinals had built a 20-14 lead. The Jaron Brown miss would have iced the game a lot earlier, and there were tense times when Stanton maneuvered the Cardinals into field-goal range – only to have Larry Fitzgerald fumble the ball at the San Francisco 5-yard line with more than six minutes to go. It could have been a devastating turn. But the defense held, with Jefferson's huge nine-yard sack of Kaepernick on second down put the 49ers in a terrible spot, leading to a punt.
"As a defense," cornerback Patrick Peterson said, "we didn't blink."
The game-clinching field goal came after John Brown coaxed a 21-yard pass interference call on third down, and Andre Ellington busted up the middle for a 20-yard gain on third-and-6 from the 49er 31.
The Cardinals have not allowed a fourth-quarter point this season. The 49ers now have been outscored in the second half of their three games by a combined 52-3.
"We just haven't executed (in the second half) the way we should," Kaepernick said.
The Cardinals are. The bye week comes at a good time, with Palmer getting extra time to recuperate and other banged up players – cornerback Antonio Cromartie hurt his knee and left the game, and his prognosis is unknown – getting rest. Arians joked that there wasn't any way the team would be putting on pads during practice this week.
They had earned a reprieve. The Cardinals didn't just rally from an on-field deficit but from an emotional week that saw the reality Palmer wasn't back yet, the end of the season for injured linebacker John Abraham and the arrest of running back Jonathan Dwyer.
Yet here they stand, one of the last few undefeated teams in the NFL.
"You can't let things keep the Cardinals from moving forward," center Lyle Sendlein said. "Guys are buying into being part of the Cardinals."
Images from the Week 3 game between the Cardinals and 49ers.