Cardinals receiver Bryant Johnson can't come down with what would have been the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left in regulation, and the Cards lost, 37-31, in overtime.
Guard Reggie Wells sat at his locker Sunday, still in full uniform some 20 minutes after the final gun, with many of his teammates dressing quickly, quietly and without comment.
The Cardinals had come achingly close to beating the 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium multiple times, a three-game winning streak there for the taking against a team that had lost eight straight.
Instead, the Cards found themselves on the wrong end of a 37-31 overtime loss when quarterback Kurt Warner was sacked in his own end zone and fumbled away
a touchdown. The optimism that had reigned suffered a painful blow.
"We don't have any time to recover from anything that goes bad at this point," Wells said. "Obviously we are still in it. There are a lot of ballgames to be played. But it's time for everybody to get their mentality that we have to win games like that. Unless everybody can buy into that, it's going to be tough."
The Cardinals (5-6) drop two games behind Seattle (7-4) in the NFC West race, after the Seahawks managed to stop the Rams in St. Louis from scoring a winning touchdown from inside the 5-yard line late in the game.
The Cards couldn't make a similar finishing play.
The numbers were often gaudy for the Cardinals Sunday, with stats that said they should have won the game. Warner had 484 yards passing, the second-highest total in franchise history behind only Boomer Esiason's 522-yard performance in 1996. The Cards had 552 yards of total offense. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald used a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown reception on the last play of the first half to generate a 156-yard day (on nine catches). Edgerrin James averaged 4.6 yards a run.
But there were two key numbers that ensured the loss: The first was the 1-for-2 day Neil Rackers had kicking field goals, given the 32-yard attempt Rackers put wide left in overtime that should have won the game.
The second was the minus-four the Cardinals were on turnovers – with the Cards' defense forcing none after getting 10 the previous two weeks. The offense, meanwhile, gave up four, including Warner's last play.
"It's tough to lose like that to a team we know we can beat," linebacker Karlos Dansby said.
The Cardinals thought they had pinned a ninth straight loss on the 49ers (3-8) when they stopped San Francisco on fourth down with 5:43 left in regulation and Arizona nursing a 28-24 lead. But that's when the fireworks began.
After holding the Cards, the 49ers managed to drive 70 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, capped by Frank Gore's 35-yard touchdown run with 1:15 left to take a 31-28 lead. Gore was dominant (116 yards rushing, 98 yards receiving on 11 catches) while the 49ers, who had gone 12 quarters without a touchdown and had 35 points total in their previous four games, generated 374 yards of offense.
"It was not the defense we have been playing and not what we have been priding ourselves on," defensive end Joe Tafoya said.
Facing a replica of the season-opening meltdown loss in San Francisco, Warner (34 for 48) led the Cardinals 84 yards in just five plays. The last play was a 30-yard bomb to Bryant Johnson that put the ball inside the 1 with six seconds left.
The Cards tried a jump-ball pass to Johnson in the end zone but it was broken up by 49ers safety Donald Strickland, and Rackers kicked the short field goal to force overtime.
After the teams traded punts to open the extra quarter, the Cardinals got a major break. The 49ers jumped offsides and most of the defenders seemed to stop, and on the free play Warner hit Sean Morey in stride on a short pass. Morey raced 62 yards down the sideline to the San Francisco 24, putting the Cards in position to win the game.
Four plays later, the Cardinals were at the San Francisco 9 on second down. Coach Ken Whisenhunt decided to kick the field goal to end it rather than go for a touchdown.
"You worry about fumbled exchange," Whisenhunt said. "I have been in a situation before were we in field-goal range, we ran an extra play, we fumbled the snap and we ended up losing the game.
"In that situation, you know you win it with a field goal, we put it in the middle of the field, we felt good about. That's why we did it. You don't expect to fumble the ball, but from that close, why would you even risk it?"
Rackers drilled the 27-yard field goal. But before the snap got off, officials called a delay of game. The ball was moved back five yards, and Rackers pulled the 32-yard attempt just outside the left upright.
The Cards were stunned. But while the 49ers moved the ball some, they were still forced to punt. Rookie Steve Breaston fielded the ball at the Arizona 2 and ran it back 13 yards, but fellow rookie Ben Patrick was called for a penalty.
The call gave the ball to the Cardinals at their own 3. On the first play, a quick pass was called, and Warner faded into the end zone.
"I didn't see anything open and I was just looking for a place to get rid of it at that point," Warner said. "I wasn't able to do so."
Defensive tackle Ronnie Fields hit Warner from behind, forcing a fumble. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain fell on the ball, and the game was over.
"I can't tell you how great it feels," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "That game was a game of ups and downs. What do they say? 'Work like it depends on you and pray like it depends on God.' I think we were doing both."
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were mulling what could have been.
"It's hard to go home and think about the one or two plays you could have done differently," Warner said. "Maybe you could have changed the outcome of the game if you had made those plays differently. Yeah, they hurt."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 11/25/07
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