Cards flip 49ers; playoff hopes extinguished

And that's how it all comes to an end for the 49ers - their flirtation with playoff fever, at least - getting swept by the Arizona Cardinals one week after sweeping the Seattle Seahawks. As the disappointment of missed opportunities prevailed Sunday at Monster Park, it was every bit appropriate. A mistake-marred 26-20 loss to Arizona was the 49ers' up-and-down 2006 season in a nutshell.

With everything to gain - and everything set up before them - the 49ers fell flat on their home turf, falling behind 20-3 in the second quarter and never playing well enough long enough to make up that deficit in an ultimately deflating second half.

"This hurts," 49ers tailback Frank Gore said through a glum expression. "We were in a good position. All we had to do is win. But we just went out and hurt ourselves with the mistakes that have hurt us all year. You can't do that in the NFL."

Not if you want to make the playoffs, you can't.

Here's how it fell into place for the 49ers on Sunday: NFC West leader Seattle lost at home to San Diego, keeping the door swinging wide open for the 49ers to go into their season finale at Denver next week with a chance to win their first division title since 2002.

And that was after the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons - the NFC's two 7-7 teams that were top wild-card contenders entering the week - had both lost at home, giving the 49ers a chance to also vault back into the wild-card race with a victory.

Only one problem. The 49ers, in their home finale, had to beat the 4-10 Cardinals, losers of eight in a row earlier this year after beating the 49ers 34-27 in the season opener. And, despite some interesting moments in the fourth quarter, that never really came close to happening.

"There's obviously a frustration that comes with being 6-9 and out of the playoff hunt," said 49ers coach Mike Nolan, whose team was eliminated from postseason contention after losing for the fourth time in five weeks. "We put ourselves in position to have a chance. Obviously, we let it slip away."

After their rousing comeback victory in Seattle 10 days ago, the 49ers fell back into a pattern of lackluster play all around as the Cardinals stormed down the field to score on each of their first four offensive possessions. Only the end of the first half stopped Arizona in the first two quarters, when the Cards rolled to 220 yards of total offense.

"To put ourselves in a hole like that, it's extremely hard," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "It's not the first time we've done that to ourselves this year. But then we made it a game again."

Arizona rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, given way too much time in the pocket to throw, had his way with the 49ers, completing 9 of 13 passes for 162 yards in the first half. But Leinart sprained his shoulder while getting sacked on his final pass late in the second quarter, knocking him out for the second half.

And then the 49ers got the big play they needed early in the third quarter, when Maurice Hicks recovered a fumble near midfield on an Arizona punt return. The 49ers quickly drove 46 yards for a touchdown, with Gore punching it into the end zone to put the 49ers right back in the game, trailing 20-13.

But this was a game in which San Francisco just never could quite get over the hump. With Kurt Warner now at the controls, the Arizona offense drained the clock and churned out first downs before Neil Rackers connected on a 37-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter. Though replays seemed to indicate Rackers actually pushed the kick wide left, the score stood and it was a two-possession game again.

But then Hicks returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards, and the 49ers were right back in business.

But not for long. On the next play, Smith's short pass over the middle slipped through Gore's hands and was intercepted by Arizona cornerback Antrel Rolle.

"He's the guy I go to on that play," Smith said. "I just got to him too quick, I guess. That was a big turning point in the game."

So was San Francisco's next offensive play, which came after the 49ers forced a punt following the Arizona drive that started in San Francisco territory after Rolle's interception.

Smith threw short underneath to Arnaz Battle, who fumbled after a 10-yard gain. The Cards recovered and quickly turned it into another field goal and a 26-13 lead.

"We just can't make those mistakes," said Battle, who had a game-high seven receptions with Antonio Bryant out due to an NFL suspension. "That's just something we have to eliminate. Good teams avoid those types of situations."

Smith completed 18 of 29 passes for 190 yards, but the offense never really seemed to click. Smith was sacked four times, Gore was limited to 51 yards on 11 carries, and the 49ers couldn't keep their offense on the field as Arizona dominated in time of possession, holding the ball a whopping 37 minutes, 40 seconds to San Francisco's 22:20.

"Going in, we felt we had to stop Frank Gore," Arizona linebacker Calvin Pace said. "We wanted Alex Smith to beat us with his passing. We tried to rush him and keep him under constant pressure whenever he dropped back to throw. When you stop the run like we did today and create turnovers, you tend to win more often than not, and you saw that today."

The 49ers still had some fight in them at the finish, with Smith making some big plays - a 44-yard completion to Vernon Davis on third-and-11 and a 10-yard completion to Battle on fourth-and-6 - to keep alive an eight-play, 58-yard touchdown drive that made it 26-20 with five minutes to play.

But there would be no magical comeback victory at the end of a game the 49ers didn't deserve to win. The San Francisco offense never saw the ball again as the Cardinals churned out three first downs against a tired 49ers' defense to seal the win.

It left Nolan as deflated as he ever has looked after a home game this season, and it's understandable. The air had just been kicked out of his team's unlikely playoff hopes.

"We've made progress (this season), but not the progress we want to make at this point," he said. "We have some of those flashes, but it's just not consistent. We're not there yet. This is part of the learning process. You want it and you want it now, but it's a process you go through."

And that's a painful process, when it ends up like the 49ers did Sunday.

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