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Opportunity Lost

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Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner tries to get a pass away early in Monday night's 24-9 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco.
 
 
SAN FRANCISCO – Like last season, the Cardinals went on the road on a nationally televised night game with a chance to clinch the NFC West title.

Like last season, mistakes doomed the Cards' celebration before it could ever be realistic.

The audience of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" watched the Cardinals commit seven turnovers and generally self-destruct in a 24-9 loss to the 49ers at Candlestick Park, preventing Arizona from finishing off the division race on their first attempt.

"It was ugly tonight," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We are disappointed and embarrassed.

"We played bad tonight, but I don't think we're a bad team. You can't have seven turnovers and expect to win."

Nothing seemed to go right for the Cards (8-5), whose main bright spot was that a knee injury to Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald that looked like it could be serious wasn't, and Fitzgerald was able to later return to the game.

But the Cards gave up 189 yards rushing and kept killing themselves.

"It was like quicksand," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "One thing goes wrong, and then another and then another."

It took the Cards an extra game in 2008 to win the division as well, losing first in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving night, 48-20, before clinching the following week at home against St. Louis.

The Cardinals remain two games ahead of the 49ers (6-7), but because San Francisco now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep of the Cards, Arizona's magic number to clinch the NFC West remains a combination of two wins and/or 49ers' losses with three games left.

With a short week this week, the Cards – who fell to 5-2 on the road -- go to Detroit while the 49ers travel to Philadelphia.

The Cardinals continued to insist to a man Monday night wasn't about winning the division but beating a division foe that had already beaten them. That didn't work out.

Five of the turnovers came in the first half as the Cards fell behind 17-0, and slowly, the Cards got behind rookie running back Beanie Wells (79 yards rushing, 24 receiving and a touchdown) to climb back within 17-9.

But down eight with 11:45 left, Wells got the ball at the Arizona 11-yard line to start a drive and promptly fumbled away the Cards' last real hope.

"We continued to believe," said quarterback Kurt Warner, who threw his first two interceptions since Nov. 1 against Carolina. "We fought back. But it was one of those days where we couldn't get out of our own way."

Warner finished just 16-of-29 for 178 yards and a passing rating of 44.9, his streak of four games of 120-plus passing ratings ending with a thud. Anquan Boldin led the Cards with five catches for 40 yards, but lost a fumble late for the seventh turnovers. Fitzgerald had just two catches for 22 yards.

Niners quarterback Alex Smith had just 144 yards passing, but had two touchdown passes. Running back Frank Gore, who had just nine carries the week before, had 25 rushes for 167 yards, controlling the game when needed.

"We got a piece of humble pie today," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "You can't turn the ball over six or seven times and give up 100-plus yards rushing. We lost the game ourselves."

The game started ominously, with the Cards getting flagged for three offsides penalties in the first six plays. But Dockett halted that drive with a spectacular interception of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith after tipping the ball himself.

The trouble started two possessions later. Running back Tim Hightower continued to have trouble with early fumbles, losing one at his own 8-yard line. Only an official's whistle prevented a touchdown after Dre Bly picked up the ball – the play was ruled a fumble after the 49ers challenged the call – and San Francisco needed just two offensive plays to get in the end zone on a Vernon Davis TD catch.

Moments later, rookie running back LaRod Stephens-Howling fumbled after a catch, setting up a 37-yard Joe Nedney field goal and a 10-0 San Francisco lead.

The Cards answered with their first sustained drive, but Warner's first interception cost the Cards at least a field-goal try. Warner's other interception was turned into a drive that ended with a 35-yard Michael Crabtree catch at the end of the half.

Trailing 17-0, the Cards might have gotten a field goal right before halftime, but Warner was sacked by Ahmad Brooks, fumbling away the ball.

The offense never did get into sync, finishing with just 245 yards.

"We didn't talk about clinching the division," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said. "We thought about that first game. But San Francisco had our number. Now we have to focus our attention on Detroit."

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