SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Alex Smith threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis after a fumble by Tim Hightower and the San Francisco 49ers added a field goal following another fumble by LaRod Stephens-Howling to take a 10-0 lead over the Arizona Cardinals after the first quarter Monday night.
Just a few weeks ago, this game looked as if it could determine the NFC West champion. But the Niners (5-7) have lost six of eight games and the Cardinals (8-4) have won four of five to take a three-game lead in the division with just four games to go.
Arizona can become just the third team to clinch its division with a win, putting the Cardinals in position to defend their NFC championship from last season and overcome the recent hex on Super Bowl runner-ups. Seven of the last eight teams to lose the Super Bowl failed even to make it back to the playoffs the following season, with Seattle the only team to avoid the letdown by winning the NFC West in 2006.
The Cardinals got off to a sloppy start, committing three offside penalties in a four-play span to help the Niners move into Arizona territory. But defensive lineman Darnell Dockett made up for his teammates’ mistakes by tipping a pass from Smith to himself for an interception. Smith had gone 99 straight passes without an interception.
San Francisco coach Mike Singletary challenged the call to no avail, thinking Dockett had dropped the ball before securing possession.
Singletary was successful on his next challenge after officials originally ruled Hightower was down before fumbling. Dre Bly had picked up the loose ball and ran it in. But because the play was ruled down on the field, the Niners got the ball at the Arizona 8. San Francisco also was out of challenges before the end of the first quarter.
Two plays later, Davis caught the pass from Smith in the end zone for his 11th touchdown, extending his single-season franchise record for tight ends.
On Arizona’s next drive, Patrick Willis stripped LaRod Stephens-Howling of the ball after a reception. Mark Roman scooped the ball up and returned it to the Arizona 28 to set up Joe Nedney’s 37-yard field goal.
Arizona managed just 25 yards and no first downs in the opening quarter.