SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Alex Smith threw a pair of touchdown passes following Arizona turnovers and the San Francisco 49ers capitalized on a litany of mistakes by the Cardinals to take a 17-3 lead after three quarters Monday night.
The Cardinals were looking to clinch the NFC West with a victory. Instead they committed five first-half turnovers and received a scare when star receiver Larry Fitzgerald left the game briefly in the third quarter with a sprained right knee.
The 49ers turned the Arizona turnovers into 17 points, with Smith throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis after a fumble by Tim Hightower and a 35-yarder to Michael Crabtree after Kurt Warner’s second interception of the half. Joe Nedney also kicked a 37-yard field goal following a fumble by LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Arizona was looking to become just the third team to clinch its division with a win. That would put 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 past 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.
But instead, the Cardinals played their worst first half of the season, committing five turnovers and six penalties while failing to score in the opening two quarters for the first time all season. They managed a 48-yard field goal by Neil Rackers early in the third quarter, but that was all the high-powered offense could generate.
Warner had gone four straight games without an interception for the first time in his career before throwing two in the second quarter, ending his streak without an interception at 130 passes. He also lost a fumble in the closing seconds of the quarter, with all three of his turnovers coming in San Francisco territory.
The one solace for the Cardinals is that they took a three-game lead over the Niners (5-7) into this game and can still clinch the division by winning two of their final three games.
Arizona got off to a sloppy start, committing three offside penalties in a four-play span. 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 Stephens-Howling of the ball after a reception. Mark Roman scooped the ball up and returned it to the Arizona 28 to set up Nedney’s field goal.
Arizona managed just 25 yards and no first downs in the opening quarter before finally generating some offense early in the second. The Cardinals’ best chance at scoring was thwarted when Dashon Goldson made a leaping grab of a pass by Warner inside the 10. Late in the half, Tarell Brown intercepted a pass intended for Anquan Boldin in Niners territory.