Linebacker Clark Haggans tackles 49ers tight end Vernon Davis during the Cards' 23-7 loss in San Francisco Sunday.
SAN FRANCISCO – The magic of John Skelton was wonderful for two games, but it was predicated on two realities: Keeping games close, and not making too many mistakes.
The Cardinals and their young quarterback couldn't make that happen Sunday at Candlestick Park, making for a very bad day by the Bay.
With the Cards turning the ball over five times – three of them interceptions by Skelton – the offense was absent, as the division-leading 49ers methodically put the Cards away, 23-7, to beat Arizona for a fifth straight time.
"It was one of those days," a frustrated Skelton said, after his worst game as a pro – completing 6-of-19 passes for 99 yards and three interceptions, along with a passer rating of 10.5.
"John played like a rookie today," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He's a young football player, and he's going to have his ups and downs."
Whisenhunt still doesn't know if injured starting quarterback Kevin Kolb will be able to return next week in St. Louis, but Skelton will be the starter if Kolb isn't ready. Whisenhunt pulled Skelton after his final interception – "John did not want to come out," Whisenhunt said – and it allowed Rich Bartel to play the fourth quarter, throwing his first NFL touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
It wasn't nearly enough.
The Cardinals acknowledged the 49ers have a good defense but there was anger in the inability to move the ball.
"It was all us," center Lyle Sendlein said.
Every offensive player praised the Cards' defense for holding up as they did, although the unit suffered a loss in the second half when nose tackle Dan Williams broke his left arm and is done for the season.
For a bit, it felt like the defense might just give the Cards (3-7) a window through which to steal a win. The 49ers (9-1) could do nothing but attempt field goals in the first half, and that became a 50-50 proposition. Kicker David Akers came into the game having made 23-of-25 field goals on the season, and had six more attempts in the first 30 minutes. But he only made three, missing one and then having two blocked (by Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson).
The Campbell block and the miss were his first two tries. The Peterson block came with the score 6-0. Without any sense of offense, however, it didn't matter. The 49ers play waiting for the other team's mistakes, and that's exactly how Sunday played out. San Francisco's offense didn't fully click until the second half, when Alex Smith threw a pair of touchdown passes.
The Cardinals avoided the shutout with Bartel's touchdown, a 23-yarder that was Fitzgerald's sixth touchdown of the season. On the same drive, backup running back Chester Taylor also broke off the longest run of the season against the 49er defense, a 34-yard scamper.
Along with Daryl Washington's end-zone interception – the first red-zone pick of Smith in 152 attempts – that was about it for Cards' highlights. The 49ers held the ball for an astounding 44 minutes, 16 seconds, and along with the turnovers (Peterson fumbled a punt return, and running back Beanie Wells fumbled on a carry) the loss was "disheartening" after two straight wins, Fitzgerald said.
"How do you win a game with five turnovers in an opposing team's stadium?" Whisenhunt asked rhetorically.
There was no reason to answer. Whisenhunt said the blame didn't fall only on Skelton, although clearly the Cardinals need to find a way for more consistent quarterback play. Skelton has no chance to lead a fourth-quarter comeback if the Cards weren't even in the game by then.
Whisenhunt stressed any judgments on Skelton couldn't be based on one game, although the calls for Skelton to permanently replace Kolb will almost certainly subside for now. Whomever is playing quarterback has to generate more than this, however.
"If we can get out offense to play at the level of our defense, we will be OK," Whisenhunt said.