Downer in the desert

The 49ers' stumbling season took another sordid twist Sunday afternoon as San Francisco could not survive an inviting visit to the Arizona desert. Hindered again by the horrible kicking of Owen Pochman, the 49ers reverted to mistake-prone, mediocre performance in a 16-13 overtime loss to the lowly Cardinals, totally nullifying the gains they made with last week's rout of defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, and sending their shaky status back into tumultuous disarray.

For one thing, the Niners figure to be looking for a new kicker on Monday. Pochman missed a 35-yard field goal attempt in the final minutes, then - after the Niners held their breath as Arizona's Tim Duncan was short on a 50-yard attempt to end regulation in a 13-13 deadlock - Pochman pushed the overtime kickoff out of bounds. That gave Arizona the starting position it needed to drive for Duncan's game-ending 39-yard field goal.

Instead of soaring into midseason with a .500 record, the 3-5 Niners suffered an ignominious loss against a weak opponent that reflected the struggles of their first six games rather than the mastery they displayed in last week's 24-7 win over Tampa Bay.

Even that game featured three missed field goals by Pochman. This time - just as in an Oct. 12 loss at Seattle when he missed a field goal and PAT attempt - Pochman's pratfalls cost the Niners a victory. He also missed a 45-yard field goal attempt and didn't get a chance to kick a PAT after San Francisco's first touchdown when Bill LaFleur botched a hold for the second time in three games.

"Our kicking game ... It's just pretty obvious," said Niners coach Dennis Erickson, whose team now has lost four games by a combined total of eight points. "And it's not just the field goals. But to get a punt blocked, to kick it out of bounds ... It just goes on and on. It's very hard to deal with."

So is the fact the Niners failed against an opponent that inexplicably ran at will against San Francisco's defense and, on the other side of the ball, shut down San Francisco's suddenly impotent offense. In doing so, the 2-5 Cards dropped the Niners to 0-3 in NFC West games and 0-4 in road games this season.

The 49ers had an opportunity for a character-building comeback that was ruined by Pochman's misdeeds, but even their late rally to gain a 13-13 tie was aided by two 15-yard personal foul penalties by Arizona's Adrian Wilson that led to the Cardinals' strong safety being ejected.

Without those penalties, the first of which came on a third-and-7 play from the Arizona 45, the Niners might have bogged down on offense just as they had done on their previous eight drives, which ended with a missed field goal, a fumble, four punts, the halftime intermission and a blocked punt, which set up a short Duncan field goal that gave Arizona a 13-6 lead to take into the fourth quarter.

The Niners also were fortunate that Duncan, in addition to his missed 50-yarder, also missed on field goal tries of 41 and 37 yards.

Arizona, ranked 32nd in the NFL - dead last - in rushing offense, controlled the tempo all day by pounding the ball against a Niners defense that was ranked No. 5 against the run. With Marcel Shipp rushing for a career-high 165 yards on 35 carries, Arizona rushed for 221 yards and had a huge edge of more than 10 minutes in time of possession. The Cards out-gained the 49ers 314-255.

"It's tough," Niners defensive tackle Bryant Young said. "Coming off a big win last week, we had to keep that momentum going. That's one of the things that was stressed all week, not to have a letdown. But we played like that at the start and it caught up with us at the end."

Well, not at the very start. The Niners stopped Arizona on three plays to begin the game, then assembled a crisp, five-play, 45-yard touchdown drive on their first offensive possession that ended with quarterback Jeff Garcia's 21-yard dash into the end zone.

But then, just like that, it started going bad for the Niners as LaFleur botched the hold on the PAT attempt. Arizona began establishing its running dominance, driving 80 yards on its next drive for the Cardinals' only touchdown. The 49ers answered by moving 51 yards to the Arizona 27, where Terrell Owens' apparent touchdown catch was overruled by an official's review of the play.

Pochman then missed his first field goal, and the day - and perhaps season - slowly began slipping away from the 49ers.

It still looked like the Niners, however, would be able to salvage both near the end of the game after Garcia was hit near the goal line on a bootleg and fumbled into the hands of tackle Kwame Harris, who took it into the end zone to tie the score midway through the final period. That lucky break got the Niners back to even, and their defense immediately responded by forcing Arizona into a three-and-out.

After a 27-yard punt set up the Niners at the Arizona 48, San Francisco moved to the 16 to set up Pochman for a routine field goal that would have won the game.

Instead, he hooked his 35-yard attempt, setting up the Niners for a disastrous finish they most certainly deserved for their lackluster play.

"You just can't do that stuff and expect to win," Erickson said. "It's disheartening because these guys played hard, played their asses off, and to end up losing because of something like that is pretty frustrating for everybody."

And so, the Niners are right back where they were a few weeks ago - mired in frustration after a close loss, and opportunities quickly becoming increasingly few to get their season back on track toward the playoffs.

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