Defensive linemen David Carter (79) and Calais Campbell celebrate as the Cards run out the clock in Sunday's 21-19 win over the 49ers.
John Skelton had come out of the bullpen to throw three touchdown passes and Larry Fitzgerald had one of his trademark big games and yet, as the seconds drained from the clock in the fourth quarter Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cardinals played it very safe.
The message was unsaid but crystal clear: Defense, finish the game for us. A massive nod toward how far the unit had progressed since opening day, and in reality, the smartest move there was.
Down just two, the 49ers went nowhere in their final two possessions – heck, they went nowhere practically the entire second half – as the Cards held on to an emotional 21-19 win over the NFC West rival.
"We love that type of pressure," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We know we gave up a lot of games at the beginning of the season."
The Cardinals (6-7) won a third straight and snapped a five-game losing streak to the 49ers (10-3), who had clinched the division title a week ago. They did so with a defense that gave up just one touchdown, that coming on the first play of the second half, and Skelton's work at quarterback following the concussion symptoms of starter Kevin Kolb.
San Francisco had just two first downs in the second half – one credited on Frank Gore's 37-yard touchdown run, the other on a personal foul penalty on Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson. None came in the fourth quarter.
The defense also had five sacks by five different players for a second straight game, held the Niners on third- and fourth-and-1 on San Francisco's final possession, and forced field-goal attempts on three first-half 49er possessions inside the Arizona 10-yard line.
"It's incredible to know that if you do make a mistake or make a turnover, it's not automatic points," said Skelton, who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
"You start with the defense," said coach Ken Whisenhunt, who tied Don Coryell with the most wins by a head coach in franchise history with his 42nd. "They allowed us to stay in the game."
Kolb was injured on the third play of the game, suffering a blow to the head when he was sacked by 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith. He will be reevaluated, but it meant Skelton – who was bad enough when he played the 49ers in San Francisco last month that he was benched – got a chance at redemption.
He did have the turnovers, but he ended up making some huge throws, finishing a career-best passing rating of 106.5 following a 19-for-28 day for 282 yards and the three scores. The first was a 60-yarder to Early Doucet, a beautiful throw down the seam that was a score only after Fitzgerald drilled cornerback Tarell Brown on a blindside block that Fitzgerald feared would draw a penalty.
That got the Cards out of an offensive funk. The second two TDs came in the second half, with Fitzgerald first hauling in a 46-yarder down the middle in the third quarter. Then Fitzgerald's 53-yard catch-and-run – Fitzgerald ended up with a season-high 149 yards on seven catches to cross the 1,000-yard mark for a franchise-record sixth season – set up Andre Roberts' three-yard scoring catch for what ended up being the winning points.
"Injuries happen," Doucet said. "From a mental standpoint, John was prepared. For the rest of us, we don't look at it as who is back there. We just have a job to do. You catch the ball when it is thrown to you. You block the man you need to block."
Skelton said the Cards started converting third downs and they got clever – the play to Roberts, for example, was not in the game plan.
There was also some luck involved. One of the biggest plays came in the first half, when the 49ers ran a fake field-goal to perfection, which, at worst, would have put them down inside the Arizona 10-yard line. But at the last second, much to San Francisco's collective chagrin, the play was whistled dead after Whisenhunt challenged the previous pass completion.
"We were watching them and we didn't feel like they got that challenge off," San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's a judgment call by the officials. You can argue it, but there is really nothing to contest."
Said Whisenhunt, "Luckily we used our fake-field-goal-red-flag-challenge that stopped that one, because that was big."
Niners kicker David Akers missed the ensuing field goal, and the Doucet pass came on the very next play.
"We don't want our defense to have to always protect us," Fitzgerald said, although that's how it felt at the end.
The 49ers, who had the ball an astounding 22 minutes and 39 seconds of the 30 minutes in the first half, finished with just 233 yards, were 3-of-17 on third downs and failed to get a touchdown on three red-zone trips.
After Roberts' touchdown with 11:50 left, the Niners had three chances to get into field-goal range and never got past their own 41-yard line.
"We knew it was going to come down to the fourth quarter," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said.
With 2:14 left, the 49ers had it at their own 41 with third-and-1. Defensive end Calais Campbell knocked down a pass on the first try. On fourth down, linebackers Sam Acho and Clark Haggans broke through and chased quarterback Alex Smith all the way back to his own 20.
Smith eventually got a pass off, but it glanced off the hands of running back Kendall Hunter. The defense had held. The Cardinals had yet another close win.
"Offense got us the lead," Haggans said. "Our job is to keep the lead."