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San Francisco 49ers 24 - Arizona Cardinals 9: Lucky Number 7; the return of Frank the Tank

Did the pregame show including ex-49er greats Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Matt Millen prove to be a precursor to a Monday Football upset, or would the 49ers fall flat against the Cardinals?  With the 49ers hanging on to very slim playoff hopes, they took the field against Arizona in a big NFC West showdown.  Tom Jackson dubbed Alex Smith "the short-term QB of the future" moments before kick-off, and during pregame predictions the undefeated Mike Ditka picked the Arizona Cardinals victorious.  Hall of Famer Steve Young chose the 49ers to win, with both Keyshawn and Boomer agreeing there was an upset in the making.  Here's what happened when the players took the field.

The first half saw a comedy of errors for the Arizona offense, as the 49ers defense forced 5 turnovers.  Frank Gore had 104 rushing yards in the first half, but the big story was indeed the San Francisco defense.  The team forced 3 fumbles, and pressured Warner into 2 interceptions.  Justin Smith was a key cog along the D-Line and Ahmad Brooks was helpful putting the heat on Warner at the end of the half, forcing a fumble on a sack.  The defensive backs were tackling and hovering to the ball well, recovering two of the fumbles to go with the 2 INTs. The 49ers secondary came up big limiting Larry Fitzgerald to 2 receptions for 22 yards and  Anquan Boldin to just 3 catches for 18 yards as the dynamic receiving duo had a poor first half.  It wasn't all fine and dandy for San Franciso, as the receivers still had a case of the dropsies (5 in the first half).  However, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis both made up for the drops by each scoring TDs to put the 49ers on the scoreboard.  Crabtree's impressive first half saw him catch 4 passes for 61 yards and 1 TD.  San Francisco went to the break leading 17-0, and looking to keep the playoff hopes alive and well.

The second half saw the Cardinals put up a fight, but in the end 2 second half turnovers sealed their fate.  San Francisco's opportunistic defense forced another 2 fumbles, and it was again the secondary that deserves the credit.  Both Dashon Goldson and Mark Roman forced the turnovers, and Frank Gore continued his superb first half performance by adding a TD in the second half.  Ahmad "Man Beast" Brooks added two more sacks after the break as Monday Night turned into a sack party for the San Francisco defense.  Possibly getting overlooked in the stellar performance was running back Glenn Coffee, who did an excellent job of pass protection when on the field.  For the opposition, Beanie Wells had an excellent second half effort of his own for the Cardinals, finishing with 79 rush yards and 1 TD.  Arizona's efforts fell short, and Kurt Warner's dismal 16/27, 178 pass yards, 2 INT performance sent 49er fans into a frenzy.  While the playoffs are still a long shot, the team still has an outside chance to get in, with a big part coming in this huge performance on Monday Night Football.

Alex Smith had a less-than-great outing, but in the end, it was enough to get it done.  While the 49ers receivers still dropped far too many passes, guys like Crabtree and Davis came up in the clutch when it counted most.  Frank Gore's 167 rushing yards were awesome, and Glenn Coffee's blitz pick-ups were impressive.  Overall, the 49ers offense had a complete performance, despite Smith's two INTs.  The same can be said for the 49ers defense, as they constantly came up big to force turnovers and rattle Warner.  This win is a refreshing, much deserved win, and we all deserve to enjoy it.

After the jump, the drive-by-drive breakdown...   

The 49ers took the ball first and Alex Smith set the tone with hard counts, catching Arizona defenders offsides three times on the opening drive.  The opening drive saw the 49ers come out in the shotgun six times and Smith under center 7 times.  With a balance of run (5)  vs. pass (5) San Francisco began marching into Cardinal territory, but the drive stalled on a pass tip and interception by Darnell Dockett.  The Cardinals took over on their own 47 yard line with excellent field position looking to turn the INT into points.  Justin Smith contested that notion, and had a great QB pressure on Kurt Warner, slamming to QB to the turf and forcing an incomplete pass.  The refs overlooked an illegal blow to the head by Smith, and the Cardinals were forced to a three-and-out after Dre Bly made a fantastic tip on a third down pass intended for Steve Breaston.

When the 49ers got the ball back, Frank Gore popped off a 36-yard rush on 3rd and 2 that launched the 49ers into Arizona territory.  On the very next play, Alex Smith held on to the ball for far too long and was sacked by Calais Campbell for a 6-yd loss.  This would prove pivotal in the 49ers quest for points, as San Francisco was forced to punt after a Michael Crabtree drop and an incomplete pass on 3rd down to Brandon Jones.  A great punt by Andy Lee (God amongst punters) and a nice special teams play by Brit Miller, pinned Arizona at their own 6-yd line.  The Cardinals came out trying to run the ball, but Dashon Goldson and Takeo Spikes read the play perfectly and Goldson caused Tim Hightower to fumble the ball away to Dre Bly.  The Refs cost the 49ers their final challenge of the game, failing to correctly rule the play a fumble (Bly also would've scored a Defensive TD).  Luckily on the ensuing drive Alex Smith found Vernon Davis in the end zone for six on the second play of the drive. 

Arizona's third drive ended the exact same way their second drive did, with a fumble.  Patrick Willis hit rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling after a catch, jarring the ball loose.  Mark Roman, 49er fan favourite, scooped up the ball and returned it to the Arizona 28-yd line.  San Francisco couldn't turn this turnover into 7 points, and had to settle for a 37-yd FG by Joe Nedney after a three-and-out.  The Cardinals fourth drive was promising, with Warner connecting on passes to Early Doucet and Larry Fitzgerald that put Arizona in San Francisco territory after a 15-yd facemask penalty on the Fitzgerald completion.  Warner then over threw Steve Breaston in the end zone, and a 10-yd penalty on Fitzgerald had Arizona in a 2nd and long.  The Cards QB then forced a pass into coverage, and Goldson came up with an interception for the third Arizona turnover of the half. 

San Francisco, however, could not turn the third turnover into points even after an impressive 31-yd run by Gore that saw him easily shrug off Arizona safety Antrel Rolle.  Alex Smith completed a pass to himself on the drive, after Darnell Dockett got another tip on a Smith pass.  The following play was an incomplete pass and Andy Lee was relied upon to pin the Cardinals again.  After a few penalties on San Francisco and then Arizona, the Cardinals began drive number 5 at their own 14.  Facing tough field position, Arizona was forced into another three-and-out, as San Francisco's defense was obviously up for the challenge.  The 49ers offense went on a 8-play drive, but came up empty on a missed 53-yd FG by Joe Nedney.  Crabtree had a nice 15-yd catch after slipping and getting back up to pick up about 10 YAC yards.  On a trademark Vernon Davis seam route, safety Adrian Wilson made a great pass defense which set up the Nedney FG attempt. 

With a chance to get points and a short field, Arizona started the drive off with an 18-yd completion to Breaston.  After a 4-yd run by LSH, Kurt Warner threw his second interception of the half into the waiting arms of Tarell Brown.  Anquan Boldin appeared to give up on the route, and Brown capitalized on the opportunity for the fourth Arizona first half turnover.  This time, the 49ers would again turn the turnover into seven points, on a 35-yd TD catch by Crabs himself.  Crabtree had a key drop earlier in the drive, but more than made up for it with the beautiful catch and run for six, stiff-arming Bryant McFadden on his way into the end zone.  The 49ers 2-minute offense looked good, and the team lined up in the shotgun for a majority of the drive.  With a 17-0 lead, there was plenty to feel good about, especially for those like Ninjames in atttendance.

The Cardinals had a great kick return to the 42-yard line to possibly get points before the half.  It was not to be, as Ahmad Brooks sacked Warner and forced a fumble that was recovered by Justin Smith to make the fifth turnover in the half - the most ever by the 49ers since 2001.  Unfortunately, the team could not convert the 5th TO into points as the half was closed on an 8-yd Frank Gore run that put the RB over 100 yards.  At the break, the Niners led 17-0. 

Arizona came out forcing the ball down San Francisco's throats, running Beanie Wells six times on the drive.  The Ohio State rookie totalled 39 yards on the drive.  The Cardinals tried going to the Well (pun intended) once to often, and Aubrayo Franklin forced Wells into Patrick Willis for a 2-yd loss on a 3rd and short.  Arizona had to punt, and the 49ers defense again came up big stopping the driving Cardinals in their tracks.   On the ensuing 49ers possession, San Francisco went three-and-out after a drop by VD on third down. 

The Cardinals seized the opportunity and put 3 points on the board with a 48-yd FG by Neil Rackers.  The San Francisco defense, however, limited the points by Justin Smith pressuring Warner on second down and Ahmad Brooks sacking the Cards signal caller on 3rd down.  Big plays by both Smith and Brooks seemed to be a theme up to this point in the game.  When the 49ers got the ball back, Frank Gore continued his strong performance by rushing for gains of 11 and 5 to start off the drive.  However, Alex Smith made a terrible read, and threw an interception to Adrian Wilson, who made the perfect read on Delanie Walker's route.  The momentum seemed to be shifting, and the Cardinals had life once again.

Arizona again relied on Wells, but this time with a 24-yd pass play to get the offense into a goal-to-go situation.  Four plays later, on a short 4th and goal, Wells punched the ball into the endzone, getting the Cardinals into striking distance on the score board.  Ray McDonald had a hustle play on the extra point, and blocked the conversion attempt, keeping Arizona back 8 instead of 7.  Would this play prove to be a key moment for the 49ers defense?  An outstanding hustle play by the Fooch fav.  The 49ers couldn't build off that slight momentum building effort, and the offense was forced to punt on after another Adrian Wilson pass deflection.  Frank Gore had a lovely 28-yd run that was negated by a Josh Morgan holding penalty and Andy Lee again had to pin the Cardinals inside the 20.

Arizona again tried to get the Beanie Wells train going, but Dashon Goldson made another outstanding play to force yet another fumble and the sixth turnover of the evening.  Parys Harlason fought and scratched his way to the recovery at the bottom of the pile and San Francisco looked poised to turn another TO into points.  Four consecutive Frank Gore runs made it happen, as the born-again stud RB punched the ball into the endzone to put the Niners up 24-9.  The following Arizona drive was snuffed out by two consecutive sacks by Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis.  Brooks has definitely stepped it up and taken it to the next level, the same can be said about the 49ers defense.

Arnaz Battle gave everyone's heart a flutter as he muffed the ensuing punt, but luckily it rolled out of bounds and the 49ers would begin the next drive on their 22-yd line.  Clutch catches by Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree kept the 49ers on the field, and balanced play-calling kept the clock ticking away.  San Francisco eventually had to punt the ball away, but effectively caused the Cardinals to burn all three timeouts.  Battle again came up as the special teams goat (and I'm not talking greatest of all-time) by failing to down an Andy Lee punt at the 1, and the result was a touchback.  Unphased by the series of unfortunate Battle events, the defense again came up huge.  On Arizona's first offensive play, Anquan Boldin was stripped of the ball by Mark Roman, who also recovered the ball for San Francisco's SEVENTH turnover. 

A few plays and a defensive holding call later, Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense lined up in the Victory Formation.  An up and down performance by Smith was offset by a strong ground pefromance by Gore, and an excellence defensive effort by the defense.  Let's all take a few days to enjoy this win, and keep our fingers crossed that the Cards fall (pun intended) in our favour for a playoff push.