Excitement at end can't save 49ers in opener

Vernon Davis and Bryan Gilmore leaped in unison with a heap of Arizona defenders in the back of the end zone Sunday afternoon as time expired and the 49ers' final shot at the Cardinals fell to the turf. The Niners certainly had their chances in a topsy-turvy season opener at the new Cardinals Stadium, but they also did plenty enough to lose, and those mistakes cost them in a 34-27 defeat.

The 49ers showed some legitimate spark on offense in their 2006 debut, out-gaining the Cardinals 393-367 while producing more yards in a game than they have in their last 27 outings dating back to early in the 2004 season.

But it wasn't enough to leave the desert with a satisfying upset win because the 49ers - after striking first with a touchdown on their first offensive drive of the season - made two critical turnovers in their own territory during the opening quarter. Arizona turned both into touchdowns, and with a 21-7 lead after one quarter, the Cardinals were off and running to victory in their first season opener at home since moving to Arizona in 1988.

The 49ers never could quite catch up. But they never were out of the game, either, in a contest that appeared headed for a rout after Arizona built that 14-point lead after one period.

But San Francisco spent the rest of the game cutting into that lead, coming within 24-21 midway through the third period, and a series of events in the final two minutes - including an on-side kick recovery by the 49ers - led to quarterback Alex Smith actually throwing into the end zone for a potential touchdown that could have tied the score on the game's final two plays.

But the first one, intended for Antonio Bryant, was knocked down in the back of the end zone. The second Hail Mary, thrown into a wave of bodies in almost the same spot as the previous play, failed to land in the hands of Davis or Gilmore and answer San Francisco's final-play prayer.

"It doesn't matter if we lost by one point, seven points or 20. It's tough to lose a game like that, especially when you come back that close," said Smith, who had the best game of his young career to guide the 49ers to their highest point total since Week 3 of last season.

Smith completed 23 of 40 passes for a career-high 288 yards and recorded a passer rating of 88.3, getting the 49ers started right with a 31-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Vernon Davis that put San Francisco ahead 7-0 with just three minutes, 15 seconds elapsed.

That game-opening drive seemed to bode well for the 49ers, but the Cardinals quickly assumed command by driving 74 yards for a touchdown on their first possession, then also romping into the end zone the next two times they had the ball after San Francisco turnovers.

The first gift came on San Francisco's second possession, when Frank Gore fumbled at his own 23-yard line and linebacker Gerald Hayes returned it 19 yards to the 5. That set up a one-yard touchdown dive by Edgerrin James.

Three offensive plays later, the ball was on the ground again when Davis fumbled after taking a short pass from Smith. The Cards promptly drove 41 yards in six plays to go ahead 21-7 just 14 minutes into the game.

"It was the mistakes," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said of his team's downfall. "But we did some good things. It showed the conditioning of our football team late in the game how our guys continued to play hard. Our defense endured that stuff and continued to play hard to the very end. Our players had the heart to do that. Now we just have to shore up a few areas."

One of those areas is pass defense, a familiar weakness for a team that allowed a franchise-record 4,427 yards through the air last season.

This time, it was Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner going for 301 yards and three touchdowns passing, finding most often receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who finished with game-high totals of nine receptions for 133 yards. Warner's three touchdown passes went to three different receivers, none of them Fitzgerald.

With a sellout crowd of 63,407 roaring in the Cardinals' new $455 million home stadium, Warner said it reminded him of his days back in St. Louis when he was a two-time NFL MVP with the Rams.

"It was fun. It reminded me of the old days," said Warner, who completed 23 of 37 passes. "We're building something new here, and I think it's great to get a win the first time out."

The 49ers made it interesting at the finish, however.

Gore's second short touchdown run made the score 24-21 midway through the third quarter and put the Niners right back in the game. Gore had a superb performance in his first game as the team's featured tailback, rushing for a game-high 87 yards on 16 carries and also catching six passes for 83 yards to keep the chains moving.

But mistakes and missed opportunities ultimately doomed the Niners, who had a 52-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Bryant nullified by a holding call on tackle Kwame Harris and saw usually reliable kicker Joe Nedney miss a gimme 34-yard field goal attempt after San Francisco had moved to the Arizona 16 early in the fourth quarter.

Nedney made a 22-yard field goal to bring the 49ers back within one score at 31-24 midway through the final period, but that came only after San Francisco had failed to produce a touchdown with a first-and-goal opportunity from the 5 that was set up by Arnaz Battle's 60-yard punt return.

After that field goal, Warner and Co. burned seven minutes off the clock to set up a short Neil Rackers field goal that stretched Arizona's lead back to 10 and seemed to settle the outcome. But the 49ers did their best to erase that advantage in the final 1:41, even though they had no timeouts remaining.

Smith hit Bryant for 46 yards on 4th-and-12, and the 49ers immediately attempted another field goal, since they were pushed back 15 yards after the play on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Bryant for taunting.

Nedney drilled a 44-yarder to get the 49ers back within a touchdown with 32 seconds left, then executed a successful on-side kick that was recovered by rookie teammate Marcus Hudson.

Coming to the line of scrimmage at the San Francisco 39 with just 31 seconds remaining and no timeouts, Smith immediately hit Bryant with a 25-yard strike to put the 49ers in position to aim for the end zone twice in the final 14 seconds.

But that's as close as the 49ers got.

"This could build character," Smith said. "To be down 21-7 and battle back to where we were and have it come down to the last play … I think we learned a lot about who we are and what kind of team we're going to be. There were definitely signs of improvement. This is Week 1. We have a lot of weeks left to continue to improve and get better."

That's how Nolan saw it, too. He bemoaned his team's struggles in pass defense and also on third downs - the Niners were a horrible 0 for 9 attempting to convert on third-down plays, while the Cards were 7 of 14 in similar situations - but also praised his rushing defense and saw other signs of hope. The 49ers limited the Cardinals to 2.9 yards per carry on the ground, holding James to a 2.8 average on his 26 carries.

"We haven't arrived, but this is a great group of guys," Nolan said. "We did well offensively in certain areas and there was some good individual performances. I have no doubts in my mind we're on the right track. We're certainly way ahead of where we were last year. I believe we've got really good things ahead of this year."

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