Resilient 49ers end slide in stunning fashion

Say this about the 49ers: They sure do know how to end an all-too-long losing streak in dazzling fashion. Showing a lot of moxie and - surprisingly - suddenly showing a lot of offense too, San Francisco pulled out all the stops Sunday in Arizona and in the end pulled out a thrilling 37-31 overtime victory that served as a new ray of hope beaming down on a season that quickly was fading to black.

It took a lot of things to go San Francisco's way at the finish, but isn't it about time that happened? The 49ers made their own breaks at University of Phoenix Stadium, then survived a lot of their own mistakes to bring down the playoff-challenging Cardinals and snap San Francisco's eight-game losing skid, the second-longest in the franchise's 62-year history.

It took a full 10 minutes beyond regulation to make it happen, not to mention a missed short field goal by the Cardinals that could have sent San Francisco to a team-record ninth defeat in a row midway through the extra period.

But the resilient Niners, with their secondary depleted by injuries, refused to give in. And so, they were able to smile and celebrate at the finish as linebacker Tully Banta-Cain fell on Kurt Warner's fumble in the end zone with five minutes left in overtime to bring a sudden end to a seesaw battle with a walk-off defensive touchdown.

"You can imagine how excited we are as a team," said 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, who continues to show considerable progress now that he has taken over for the injured Alex Smith. "To go through what we've been through this season, and obviously the major disappointment of the record, to come in here and fight and claw and do everything we can to win a game… It's a big step forward."

And after falling into the NFC West basement with last week's home loss against St. Louis, the 49ers (3-8) popped right back out while sweeping the season series from the Cardinals and dealing a blow to the postseason hopes of Arizona, which had crept within a game of division-leading Seattle.

And while it's easy to say the 49ers could have lost this one too, it's just as easy to say they deserved to win it.

San Francisco's defense, after allowing just 207 yards to the Rams last week, allowed a whopping 552 yards, 484 of them passing yards by Warner. Included in that total was a successful 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald on the final play of the first half that allowed the Cardinals to stroll into the locker room at the intermission with a 21-17 advantage.

But despite bending and breaking all afternoon long, the San Francisco defense played a big part in the victory, all the way down to Banta-Cain's game-ending touchdown after Ronnie Fields had bear-hugged Warner three yards deep in the end zone and stripped him of the ball.

Cornerback Walt Harris intercepted Warner twice and cornerback Nate Clements forced a fumble after an Arizona reception that safety Mark Roman returned 43 yards to set up a touchdown that gave San Francisco a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter. The 49ers scored their first touchdown on a short drive set up by Harris' first interception, which tied the score after Arizona had taken the opening kickoff and waltzed 92 yards down the field in eight plays to begin this scoring derby.

Scoring derby? Who would have believed it with these 49ers? San Francisco, a 10.5-point underdog entering the game, scored more points against the Cardinals on Sunday than it had in its previous four games combined.

With Dilfer looking smooth directing the offense and connecting on several key throws, the 49ers produced 374 yards of offense, by far the highest total of the season for the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense. It was the first time San Francisco had gained more than 289 yards in a game this season.

But it didn't look much like a fluke as the offensive line played perhaps its best game of the season, and Frank Gore had the breakout performance he and everybody else has been waiting for since the season began.

Gore started slowly, then limped to the sideline after rolling his injured right ankle while being tackled in the first quarter. At the time, it looked like he might possibly be lost for the game, but Gore was back in the huddle on the next series, and he then proceeded to lift the 49ers and wear down the Cardinals like he did so many times last year during his record-smashing 2006 season.

"Frank is the catalyst of this football team," Dilfer said. "We feed off his energy. Sometimes, when (opponents) are playing a soft zone, your most valuable weapon on offense is your back. And he happens to be our best football player, too. So I made a conscious effort to give Frank the ball in open space. Frank's the reason here. We got him the ball as much as we could."

That's for sure. Gore recorded a career-high 11 receptions for 98 yards. He also cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier for the first time this season - he did it a franchise-record nine times last year - toting the football a season-high 21 times for 116 yards.

Gore also had two trademark touchdown runs, including a 35-yard scoring burst late in the fourth quarter that put the 49ers ahead 31-28 - the fifth and final lead change of the game - and in position to win with just 1:15 remaining in the game.

"We just kept pounding the rock," Gore said. "We just kept pounding, kept pounding. We kind of wore them out."

But the Cardinals, winners of two in a row, hardly were finished. With nickel cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Marcus Hudson on the bench with injuries, Warner went right to the air while starting at the Arizona 15 with 1:11 to play.

And he almost gave Arizona the victory right then and there.

Completing four consecutive passes of nine yards or more, Warner took Arizona to the San Francisco 31, where he threaded a pass down the sideline that was pulled in by Bryant Johnson inside the 1-yard line.

But there were only six ticks left on the clock and the Cards were out of timeouts. Taking a chance, Warner threw into the end zone for Johnson, who had the ball in his hands but had it knocked away on a great play by cornerback Donald Strickland. With two seconds left after the incompletion, Neil Rackers came in to kick a gimme 19-yard field goal to knot the score at 31-31 and send the game into overtime.

The next time Rackers set up for a short field goal - a 27-yarder with seven minutes remaining in overtime - the 49ers looked like they were finally cooked. Rackers split the uprights on the kick, but the game didn't end. The Cardinals were called for delay of game before the snap, nullifying the apparent game-winner and pushing Arizona back five yards for a re-kick.

Still, Rackers only had to make a straight-on 32-yarder to end this thing. But, shockingly, he missed it, hooking it right of the goal posts to keep the 49ers alive.

Moments later, after San Francisco punted the ball back to Arizona, the Cardinals found themselves back at their own 3. Warner dropped back to pass, tried to avoid Banta-Cain, then ran into Fields, who slapped the ball away onto the turf, where Banta-Cain pounced on it.

Game over.

Also over was that losing streak that had put everything about the 49ers into question. San Francisco hadn't tasted victory since way back on Sept. 16 - 10 long weeks ago.

"You could have swore we just won the Super Bowl the way we were celebrating," Banta-Cain said.

And why not? This one felt special and satisfying for the 49ers, who hadn't scored 20 points in game since their season-opening 20-17 victory over these same Cardinals. As it was, San Francisco had its highest scoring total in a game since the 2003 season.

And this was a victory to go around. Practically half the San Francisco roster contributed a big play or two. Vernon Davis had six receptions and a touchdown. Arnaz Battle turned a short third-down pass into a breakaway 57-yard touchdown reception that gave San Francisco a 24-21 lead entering the fourth quarter. The 49ers sacked Warner four times and hit him on six other occasions.

And phenomenal rookie Patrick Willis had a game-high 18 tackles, one of them coming when he chased down reserve wide receiver Sean Morey after a 62-yard gain in overtime that set up Arizona's botched field-goal sequence a few plays later. Morey had nothing but open space ahead of him as he raced down the right sideline after a coverage breakdown by the 49ers. But Willis caught him, another play that kept San Francisco alive.

"It was an outstanding team win," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "This one was exciting because of the points, obviously, and that was a great time for our offense. The offense was outstanding today. But when the defense got turnovers, and we had some good returns on special teams, (the offense) capitalized on the field position. That is the key to winning games, and we haven't done that this season very often."

But the 49ers did it on this Sunday, breathing some new life into a season that definitely was in need of resuscitation.


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