SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The Arizona Cardinals scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game after the 49ers were flagged by referee Pete Morelli's crew for two personal fouls. One, 49ers receiver Torrey Smith owned up to afterwards. Another call was much more controversial on the home team's side.
On second-and-10 from the 32, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer took what could have been a game-changing sack from lineman Quinton Dial, which would have set up a long third-down play with the game tied at 13.
Instead, Arizona was given a first down, and eventually won the game thanks to Palmer's seven-yard touchdown scramble, his first rushing touchdown since 2012.
"There's no debate here. He hit me right in the face with the crown of his helmet," Palmer said after the game.
Without a doubt, 49ers fans did not like the call. And they've seen this situation before. On the road in New Orleans in 2013, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks hit Drew Brees with a forearm to the upper chest, forcing a decisive fumble recovered by Patrick Willis late in the fourth quarter, which would have won the game for San Francisco.
Instead, Brooks was flagged for a personal foul for roughing the quarterback by hitting Brees in the head and neck area. The Saints then went down and hit a game-tying field goal before eventually winning the game with a go-ahead field goal as time expired, 23-20.
Still from the video of the play show Brees neck extending like a slinky, while Brooks' arm hit him in the chest. However, when a quarterback's head whips, officials generally throw the flag.
The officials Sunday ruled Dial led with the crown of his helmet Sunday and hit Palmer in the face.
"When I watched the replay, I saw he kind of ducked into it. There was nothing I could do at that point," Dial said.
49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said afterwards, "I’m not going to comment on the officiating,” after getting questioned about the flag on Dial's hit.
Palmers chinstrap wound up high on his face after his helmet was nearly knocked off by the force of Dial's hit. Replays showed it was a questionable call, with Dial hitting Palmer in the chest.
San Francisco came into Sunday's game as one of the least-penalized teams in the NFL, ranking first in penalty yardage and fourth in penalties taken. Against Arizona, they were flagged 13 times for 81 yards, including 30 yards on that decisive scoring drive for the Cardinals. The 13 flags tied a season high with the loss Nov. 1 in St. Louis.
On Smith's penalty, he admitted to being too close to the field along the 49ers' sidelines. An official ran into him, drawing a 15-yard flag that moved the ball to Arizona's 32, two plays before Dial's sack was taken away.
Overall, however, Smith said he finds the rules and officiating less cut and dry than the process should be.
"We don’t know what a catch is, and we know what pass interference is. I’ve seen a thousand different ones called," Smith said. "That’s just how it goes. (Referees) are humans. I’m not going to say they got everything wrong or they got everything right. But there were a lot of flags on the field today."