Cardinals Fumble Away Chance at Clinching Division
A few mistakes against a problematic division opponent, that can be expected. But seven turnovers against the perpetually rebuilding San Francisco 49ers?
That was absolutely crippling Monday night at Candlestick Park, as a fired-up 49ers defense forced a franchise-record seven fumbles and recovered five of them, plus added two interceptions of Kurt Warner. The lethal combination of turnovers, penalties and overall embarrassing play became a 24-9 banana peel of a loss beneath the skidding feet of the defending NFC champions.
"Obviously, it was ugly for us tonight," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose team started off the night with three offsides penalties on San Francisco's first drive, and saw it snowball from there.
Arizona could have wrapped up the NFC West with a victory. Was the pressure of winning the division too great?
"I don't think clinching the division was ever that big of a thing," Whisenhunt said.
Instead, Cardinals players spoke of how they allowed the game to get completely out of their control. It was a startling, disturbing performance that seemed like self-immolation for a team that upset the mighty Minnesota Vikings 30-17 a week earlier.
"We got a piece of humble pie today," said Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who spoke openly last week about how the home-standing 49ers could be the kind of team to wreck what's been a vastly improved Arizona regular season. "You can't win ballgames with six, seven turnovers, giving up 100 yards rushing. But they outplayed us today. Sometimes you need those kinds of games to get you where you need to be."
Does this sound familiar?
Presented with a wonderful opportunity Monday night to clinch the NFC West with three games remaining in the regular season, the Cardinals (8-5) reverted back to their December 2008 alter egos -- the mistake-prone team that backed into a successful postseason run by losing four of its last six games.
Last season, it was a 47-7 face plant in the snow at New England in Week 16 that became the battle cry for Arizona's improbable but inspiring postseason run all the way to Super Bowl XLIII.
This season, will it be the Crash at Candlestick?
"It has to be," said Warner, who completed only 16 of 29 passes for 178 yards. He had no touchdowns, and the two picks left him with a 44.9 passer rating. He also was sacked four times. "We still have a lot of stuff in front of us to accomplish (the playoffs) and to reach those goals.
"We need to get back to playing good football. I think that's the one thing you can say about this football team -- we respond and have responded over the last couple of years to games like this."
Give it up to the 49ers (6-7) for scoring the clean sweep of the Cardinals this season. But the Arizona postgame locker room was filled with angry, humiliated players who now see next week's trip to Detroit for a Week 15 therapy session against the 2-11 Lions as a chance to exact revenge for a Monday night gone horribly wrong.
"Oh yeah, we've been through this before. And we're gonna bounce back from it," Dockett said. "We're gonna get back to work and we're gonna bounce back harder. We're gonna go fight Detroit and they're gonna have their hands full.
"I can tell you that right now -- they're gonna have their hands full. We'll get this thing back on track where we need to be. If we're going to have these kinds of mistakes, let us have them now."
He has a point. It's on film now, the 15 lost fumbles entering the game and the eye-popping five added to the total Monday night. Warner fumbled, along with running backs Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower, rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who provided the final turnover of an awful night with just over two minutes remaining.
On that play, Boldin caught a pass from Warner, only to let Mark Roman's tackle separate him from the football.
And that, quite simply, is what separated this week's Cardinals from the impressive team that destroyed the Vikings on Dec. 6.
"Turnovers," Boldin said. "If you come out and turn the ball over seven times, you are not going to win. I don't care who you are playing."
The 49ers needed this victory to keep their season from slipping into ignominy. And they got a stellar defensive performance from a talented group; once-maligned free safety Dashon Goldin was credited with two forced fumbles as well as an interception.
Running back Frank Gore rushed for 167 yards on 25 carries, his third 100-yard rushing game of the season.
While the Cardinals destroyed themselves with mistakes, 49ers coach Mike Singletary had preached the importance of protecting the ball and avoiding self-inflicted wounds. Quarterback Alex Smith threw a pair of interceptions but San Francisco largely heeded the head coach's words.
"It's just going out and let's see how good we can be without killing ourselves in the process," Singletary said.