A big win? Yes. A costly win? Absolutely.
The San Francisco 49ers moved to within one game of first place in the NFC West, but after Monday night’s 27-6 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, the team said that running back Frank Gore suffered a fractured right hip and is finished for the season.
Gore gained 52 yards in 5 carries in the first quarter but went down with the injury and never returned. That means that backup Brian Westbrook, who had 136 yards and one touchdown after entering the game, will be the team’s primary back.
The news tarnished the 49ers’ victory on national TV, but with a 4-7 record, they’re now just one game out of first place, behind the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams (5-6).
The win, however, says less about the 49ers than it does about the state of the division, which is so dreadful that it’s possible the winner will advance to the playoffs with a 7-9 record. No team has ever reached the postseason with a record worse than 8-8.
As inartistic as it was, the game was still a wonderful showcase for Westbrook, who shook off any initial rust and finished with his 19th career 100-yard rushing game.
“I was fresh,” said Westbrook, who had carried the ball only five times in the team’s first 10 games. “For me, I just wanted to follow the big guys. Any time you have holes like I did tonight, you know your line is having a good game.”
After the game, coach Mike Singletary said he was unaware of the extent of Gore’s injury. But asked if Gore wanted to get back in the game, he answered, “We hid his helmet.”
Thankfully for the 49ers, they didn’t need him. Westbrook, who has been a non-factor since he was signed at the end of training camp, didn’t miss a beat.
Actually, it was a combination of good up-front play by the Niners offensive line and an awful performance by the Cardinals defense. The 49ers rushed for 261 yards (by contrast, Arizona had 13), averaged 5.4 yards per offensive play and converted 7 of 13 third-down chances.
Troy Smith, in his fourth game at quarterback, was 11 of 23 passing but had one fumble (it was recovered), one interception and one ill-advised pass that was ruled a fumble but was later overturned on a challenge.
Still, Smith is 3-1 as a starter, and he got the 49ers off to a big start by hitting Michael Crabtree with a 38-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
They never looked back and never trailed. And now, somehow, their playoff hopes are still flickering.
But if they get there, it will be without Gore in the backfield.
INJURIES: Center David Baas suffered a concussion, and wide receiver Dominique Zeigler has a sprained knee. No word yet on whether either will be available for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.