Floundering 49ers fizzle again at finish

It began with such hope. And ended, once again, in such disgust. For all too long Sunday, it appeared Alex Smith and the 49ers finally were growing up against the Arizona Cardinals. But that ray of promise deteriorated into another afternoon of growing pains for San Francisco, which led entering the fourth quarter but imploded to the end of a 17-10 loss that pretty much gives the Niners a stranglehold on another last-place finish in the NFC West.

One step forward, two steps back. And then another step back. And yet another. That was the progression followed by the 49ers down the stretch Sunday as they showed they had no business holding onto a one-point lead in the final period even against the lowly Cardinals.

And rally from behind once they lost that lead? Forget it. Smith threw two of his three second-half interceptions in the final 12 minutes as the 49ers produced just 60 yards of offense after halftime while losing their fifth consecutive game to drop to 2-10.

"This loss was due to poor execution in a lot of different areas," were the first words out of Mike Nolan's mouth at his postgame news conference.

Boy, was that ever wrapping up another loss precisely in one brief sentence.

No, the 49ers didn't execute when they were in a position to take command in the final period, and that spread from the offense to the defense to the coaches on the sideline.

So let us count the ways, and comprehend the explanations for what happened:

--- The 49ers appeared to be in decent shape with 11:36 to play when Keith Lewis intercepted a Kurt Warner pass and returned it to the San Francisco 45-yard line with the Niners holding onto a 10-9 lead. Lewis had earlier blocked a punt to set up a field goal that gave San Francisco that one-point advantage.

But on the next play, rookie running back Frank Gore fumbled the ball away after losing a yard.

"I messed up in the clutch," Gore said. "We shouldn't have been in that situation. I should have made sure I held onto the ball. (We) had just made a key play on the defensive side. I came back and dropped the ball."

--- And now the ball was rolling downhill on the 49ers. The landslide had just begun.

Nolan called a timeout after his defense trotted onto the field. Then, believing officials had told him he could use that timeout to challenge the play, he tossed his red flag onto the field to challenge whether Gore had fumbled. The fumble, which was rather obvious, was upheld, and the 49ers were charged with another timeout – their last – leaving them to play the remainder of the contest without a timeout.

"I wanted to get the official's attention, but also wanted a timeout," Nolan said. "When the officials came to me, I asked if it was any expense to me to challenge at that time, as I've already called a time out. They stood and looked at me in awe, so I said if it's not going to cost me anything, I'll put the flag up because I'm going to burn a timeout to calm down the defense, which was out there with the wrong call.

"In the meantime, the officials go to the side and say that because I called a timeout first, they charged me with a timeout and another one with the red flag. I will know the rules in the future, but the information I got back from them at the time should not have happened. I made the mistake and have to live with it, but they are there to help with the rules, and I wish I got better information."

That sequence seemed to deflate the 49ers, who never would be the same the rest of the way.

--- Three plays after Nolan's gaffe, the Cardinals were facing a third-and-20 play after a 10-yard holding penalty and two Warner completions. Warner, facing a heavy rush, dumped off a short pass to Anquan Boldin, who had nothing but San Francisco defenders in front of him.

A few seconds and several missed tackles later, Boldin had nothing but green field in front of him as he cut back from left to right and then turned the corner for a stunning 54-yard touchdown play that won the game for the Cardinals.

Nolan said the 49ers had called just the defense they wanted to stop that play. But as Boldin reversed field, he slipped tackle attempts by linebackers Brandon Moore and Julian Peterson, cornerbacks Bruce Thornton and Shawntae Spencer and safeties Ben Emanuel and Mike Adams.

In other words, half the San Francisco defense.

"It shouldn't have happened," Adams said. "I can't take nothing from Anquan. He's hard to bring down. But we ran to the ball, the more the merrier, and we just missed tackles. We had five or six guys who should have made that tackle. I should have made that tackle. And I'm the last line of defense."

The Cardinals (4-8) tacked on the two-point conversion, meaning the 49ers suddenly needed a touchdown just to get in a position to tie.

San Francisco stormed right back on its next possession, getting crisp passes from Smith reminiscent of the way he played in the first half, when he completed 11 of 12 passes for 138 yards to take a 114.6 quarterback rating into the locker room at intermission.

But after moving the Niners from their own 32 to the Arizona 30, Smith got rattled in the pocket on a third-and-9 play and forced a throw over the middle that was intercepted by safety Robert Griffith.

The Cardinals, who swept the season series between the two teams for the first time, burned the next five minutes off the clock. But a San Francisco defense that was on the field for almost 18 minutes of the second half held once more, giving the ball back to Smith and the offense with 2:14 remaining – with no timeouts.

Two plays later, the outcome was sealed. Smith underthrew Brandon Lloyd on the right sideline and was intercepted again by cornerback Eric Green.

It was quite a fizzle at the finish for Smith, who had sparkled in the first half, completing his first eight passes and leading the 49ers on a crisp 85-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that put the 49ers ahead 7-3 at halftime. Smith had completions of 31, 24 and 24 yards on the drive.

"I felt comfortable out there and the game really slowed down for me," said Smith, who was 5 of 12 for 47 yards with the three picks after halftime. "It was finally a situation where it was nice to get going and get in a little rhythm. But there's still lots of mistakes I have to correct. Costly mistakes. I've obviously come a long way since the preseason, but there's obviously a lot of things I still have to work on to get better."

The same can be said about the rest of the team around him.

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