Believe it! 49ers pull off stunning comeback
When the 49ers took possession of the football with 2:58 remaining on the clock – almost four minutes after surrendering the go-ahead touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 17-13 lead – they looked as good as cooked, their hopes for a big-bang beginning to this season of high expectations headed for a most resounding THUD! Not many of the Faithful still hanging around in the stands more than three hours after the opening kickoff had much reason to think otherwise. Before taking the ball at their own 14-yard line in the waning moments, the 49ers had managed just 30 yards of net offense in the second half and just 108 to that point in the entire game. They had punted on each of their previous four possessions and hadn't managed a first down since midway through the third quarter. Their offense, in a word, stunk. "We struggled all night," Smith said. "It was so frustrating on offense. But we played so hard and never gave up. Our guys stepped it up on that final drive. We never quit believing and never stopped knowing that we were going to pull it out and win the game." They were certainly in the minority, because the San Francisco offense hadn't gotten past its own 33-yard line since the third quarter. But then something happened. As Smith said, the 49ers stepped it up. And nobody did it more than Smith. Except, maybe, Arnaz Battle. The quarterback and the veteran receiver were the heroes who made it happen as the 49ers drove 86 yards in 12 plays to paydirt, clutching what appeared to be a certain victory away from the Cardinals and ending San Francisco's four-game losing streak to the visitors from Arizona. "I had confidence in our guys and I knew that we would keep fighting," said Battle, who made arguably the biggest plays of the game on back-to-back plays in the final minute. "We fought until the end and on that last drive we knew what we had to do." Battle certainly knew what he had to do. With the 49ers facing third-and-13 from the Arizona 23 and the seconds ticking off the clock, Battle got one-on-one coverage as he streaked up the middle against Arizona safety Terrence Holt. Battle leaped into the air to make the grab over Holt as Smith put the pass on the money. But as he came down and lunged for the goal line, Holt knocked the ball out of Battle's hands and it bounced tantalizingly forward into the end zone, where Arizona cornerback Eric Green had a clear shot at recovering it. But as Green jumped on the ball, which would have ended San Francisco's valiant comeback, it squirted away from him, allowing 49ers' receiver Darrell Jackson to make a heads-up recovery. The 49ers didn't get the winning touchdown there because of a NFL rule that does not allow a team to advance a fumble in the final two minutes of a game. So the 49ers, after taking their final timeout, got the ball back at the Arizona 1-yard line with 26 seconds to play. With time certainly an issue – getting stopped short of the goal line could have left the 49ers in a precarious position to get off another play – San Francisco came out with an empty backfield, and then came up with a play that completely flummoxed the Arizona defense. Smith took the snap and pitched to Battle on a flanker reverse, and Battle had nothing but clear sailing around the left edge as he trotted into the corner of the end zone to complete the amazing comeback with 26 seconds to play. Battle got the game ball afterward from coach Mike Nolan, which seemed appropriate because this was a game the 49ers would not have won without Battle's momentous plays at the end, not to mention his game-high five receptions for 60 yards. "We are a team that is about finishing and it obviously showed today," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We play games to the very end. Offensively, we saved our best for last. That's probably the best thing I can say, which was important because it is all about winning." The final play served as some kind of redemption for first-year offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, whose game plan looked both ineffective and predictable as the game progressed. The run game that spearheaded the San Francisco offense last year struggled as Frank Gore averaged only 3.1 yards per carry, gaining 55 yards on his 18 totes. And the 49ers had trouble protecting Smith, who was sacked three times for 24 yards in losses and was either harassed or hit several other times when he attempted to throw. While completing 15 of 31 passes for 126 yards, Smith had at least half a dozen of his throws flat-out dropped by his intended targets. But Smith took it upon himself on that final possession, using his feet and elusiveness to produce the play that kept the drive alive. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 45, Smith dropped back to pass and looked for Battle. As the pocket quickly collapsed, he stepped left, then stepped right, then stepped up and away from defenders and reversed field to the left to pick up the first down. And then he kept going, turning the corner for a 25-yard gain that gave the 49ers and their fans realistic hope that this incredible comeback actually could happen. "The key play of it all was Alex on fourth down," Battle said. "Scrambling around, fighting, guys making blocks for him, and he was able to get out of the pocket and get the first down. He showed his composure, his fight and his leadership." Before imploding on Arizona's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter – when two penalties allowed the Cardinals to get in position for Matt Leinart's five-yard scoring pass to Anquan Boldin with 6:40 remaining – a resurgent San Francisco defense displayed many of the same qualities. The 49ers harassed Leinart throughout the evening, limiting him to 14 completions in 28 attempts for just 102 yards passing. San Francisco received an outstanding game from its secondary, which began on Arizona's first offensive play, when Walt Harris stepped in front of receiver Larry Fitzgerald for an interception that he returned 23 yards to the Arizona 6 to set up San Francisco's first touchdown. Arizona's final play ended in similar fashion when Shawntae Spencer pulled down Leinart's Hail Mary bomb intended for Fitzgerald with eight seconds remaining. In between, San Francisco defenders knocked away seven other passes. The secondary sparked a defensive unit that also received big plays and standout performances from linebackers Patrick Willis (game-high 11 tackles, Derek Smith (eight tackles), Manny Lawson (five tackles – two for losses) and veteran defensive end Bryant Young (five tackles, one sack). That defense, which has struggled to stop Arizona's passing game the past two years, kept the 49ers in the game while the offense struggled, giving San Francisco a chance to pull it out at the end. And that's exactly what these never-say-die Niners did. "This is a big step for us," Smith said. "We really took it to the next level when we had to and showed a lot of character. We really hung in there and believed in each other and knew we were going to get it done. There's a lot of reasons to feel good about this one. We took that step where we want to go."
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