49ers open season with KO of defending champs

Mike Singletary said earlier this week he's excited about his San Francisco 49ers, and now it's time for the rest of us to join along. Showing a will to win that reflects their intensely poised head coach, and coming through in the clutch to make it happen, the Niners walked into a hostile environment and stunned the defending NFC champions 20-16 to stake an early claim to the top of the NFC West.

In their quest to get back atop a division they once owned and end a franchise-record string of six consecutive seasons, the 49ers couldn't have taken a bigger step forward than the quantum leap they made Sunday afternoon against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Building an early 10-point lead, then assembling a 15-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter after allowing that lead to fritter away, the 49ers took it to their divisional nemesis with the game on the line, handing Arizona – the team that came a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl last season – its first NFC West loss since 2007.

And the Niners did it in a manner that has become expected of Singletary's team – by punching the Cardinals in the face and never letting up in their application of physical play.

"Coming in here and getting a win, a division game, especially against a team coming off the Super Bowl, that's a big step for us," defensive end Justin Smith said.

Smith put the final foot down on the big step, sacking Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner on the game's final play as Warner looked downfield from his own 46-yard line hoping to unload a Hail Mary pass he never was able to get out of his hands before Smith unloaded on him.

Smith had done a similar sort of thing in a crucial sequence on the previous Arizona series, driving into Warner and forcing an incomplete pass on fourth down with the Cardinals at the San Francisco 33-yard line with 1:55 to play.

Facing one of the NFL's elite offenses and passing attacks, the Niners harassed Warner all afternoon, sacking him three times and hitting him as he threw on eight other occasions. With the front end stuffing the run – the Cards had just 40 yards rushing on 17 carries – and the back end coming through with eight passes defensed and two pivotal interceptions, the San Francisco defense took the game to Arizona and never stopped punching until Smith delivered the final knockout blow.

"We got them in situations where we knew they had to pass and that's what you want as a defense," Smith said. "When it counted, we turned it on. The back end did a tremendous job, and that definitely helps us out (up front) tremendously. It works both ways. So it's team defense, and I think today we played pretty good team defense."

Looking at statistics – the 49ers finished with just 203 yards of total offense, including just 21 net yards rushing – would suggest San Francisco didn't play very good team offense Sunday. But the truth is, the 49ers came through when necessary on that side of the ball, too.

It never was more necessary than in the fourth quarter after the 13-3 lead the 49ers owned late in the second quarter had evaporated into a 16-13 Arizona advantage early in the final period.

Even worse for the Niners, the Cardinals appeared to have all the momentum on their side after San Francisco's offense had gone three-and-out on each of its three second-half possessions.

But after getting out-gained 116-4 by Arizona in the third quarter, the 49ers drove efficiently and methodically to the winning touchdown with quarterback Shaun Hill avoiding constant pressure to make plays and complete 9 of 13 passes on the drive.

Hill completed the masterful march – which included four third-down conversions – by making a quick read as a blitz converged upon him and finding a wide-open Frank Gore for a three-yard pass on third-and-goal to provide the winning touchdown with 7:26 to play.

"We just moved the chains," said Hill, who completed 18 of 31 passes for 209 yards and had a QB rating of 89.3 despite being sacked four times and hit on five other passing plays. "The whole unit was saying the same thing: ‘Hey, it's time go.' I don't believe we got any big (yardage) plays on it, just executing and moving the chains."

Hill also connected on a 50-yard third-down completion – the longest of his career – to Isaac Bruce late in the second quarter to set up Gore's 6-yard touchdown run on the next play that gave the Niners a 13-3 lead with 2:28 to play before haltime.

That was the longest run of the game for the 49ers, who averaged 0.8 yards on their 25 carries. Gore was limited to 30 yards rushing on 22 carries, and San Francisco had seven rushing plays go for negative yardage.

Not exactly what you'd expect from a team that is hanging its hat this season on a power rushing attack. But somehow, the Niners still were able to get it done.

"We made a play here, a play there, and we won," Gore said. "(Arizona) had a great game plan for our offense. It was tough out there on the ground. They came in thinking they were going to stop the run, and they did a great job. But coach Singletary wants physical, hard-nosed football and that's our style. That's what we have to do and we stuck with it and got it done."

A win over the 49ers on the road in last season's opener propelled the Cardinals toward their first NFC West title and a trip to the Super Bowl.

There's no telling yet where the 49ers go from here, but they certainly couldn't have imagined a better way to start this season than a win over the Cards in Arizona.

"I'm just very proud of our guys," said Singletary, who won his first season opener as head coach and now has led the 49ers to six victories in their past eight games after an 0-2 start as interim coach.

"I think our guys did what they had to do to win the game, and that's what we're striving for," Singletary said. "Now we have to continue to go forward. One win paves the way for another. We just have to continue to build off it."

And what better foundation to build upon than a season-opening road knockout of the defending champs?

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