They were all business in the first half against the Arizona Cardinals, piling up the points and making big plays on both sides of the ball to build a 24-point halftime advantage. The Niners couldn’t keep up that pace in the second half, but they still finished with a 38-28 victory that broke a first-place tie with the Cardinals and left San Francisco alone atop the division.
“It’s nice to be out front,” 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said after his team withstood Arizona’s three-touchdown rally in the second half. “It was a battle for first place, and we’ll take it. They (Arizona) were there for a reason.”
The reason was the Cardinals have been good at staying close and winning relatively low-scoring affairs. They needed only 25 points combined to beat Carolina and Dallas the previous two weeks and climb into a first-place tie in the division after San Francisco lost at New Orleans on Oct. 20.
But that wasn’t going to work Sunday against the Niners, who had 31 points on the scoreboard by halftime.
“As good a team as the 49ers are, we can’t spot them 31 points, and that’s basically what we did, we spotted them 31 points in the first half,” Arizona coach Dave McGinnis said. “Give the 49ers credit. They won the football game, they took it when they had to take it.”
The Niners were relentless on both sides of the ball in the first half, creating turnovers on defense and turning them into scores on offense. San Francisco scored on its first four possessions and five of its six in the first half – four of them ending in touchdowns.
But the tone was set on the defensive side of the ball.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Niners defensive end Andre Carter raced around the right edge and sacked Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer, knocking the ball loose on the play. It was recovered by teammate Dana Stubblefield at the Arizona 33-yard line, and – with just 12 seconds elapsed in the first quarter – the game never again would be the same.
“That was a great feeling,” Carter said. “That’s what a defense has to do. Our main goal is to do that for all four quarters.”
The Niners certainly didn’t do that, surrendering 248 of Arizona’s 420 total yards after halftime. But when the game was being decided in the opening 30 minutes, San Francisco’s defense did what it had to do.
The Niners limited Arizona to just 23 net yards and one first down on the Cardinals’ first four possessions. Two of those drives were stopped by turnovers – the second an interception of a deep pass by free safety Ronnie Heard.
After the Cardinals scored their lone first-half touchdown, they went 87 yards in 13 plays late in the second quarter and were on the doorstep of getting back in the game before Heard ended that drive with the second of his three interceptions on the afternoon.
This one came in the end zone with 56 seconds remaining before intermission, and it swung the momentum back to the 49ers for good.
“They had the momentum a few times, and we had to get it back,” said Heard, who also stopped Arizona’s final drive with an interception at the San Francisco 6-yard line with 5:25 to play. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
Thanks in part to Heard’s interceptions, the game didn’t appear to be a fair fight in the first half as the Niners led 17-0 at the end of the first quarter and had a dominating 31-7 advantage at halftime.
The back-breaker came after Heard’s second interception. The Niners, with 80 yards to go and just 56 seconds on the clock, could have opted to sit on their 24-7 lead.
But they didn’t. Boy, did they not.
After runs of 11 yards by Garrison Hearst and eight yards by Kevan Barlow moved the ball to the San Francisco 39, quarterback Jeff Garcia bounced out of the pocket and found Terrell Owens for a short pass over the middle.
Owens did the rest, bursting down the center of the field, then cutting to the left and breaking down the sideline to complete a stunning 61-yard play that gave the Niners all the points they would need to absorb Arizona’s representative second-half challenge.
It was the second Garcia-to-Owens touchdown collaboration of the afternoon. Garcia also slipped out of the pocket to find Owens for a 21-yard score midway through the first period. On that play, Owens adjusted his route to come back to the football, then evaded two defenders to high-step into the end zone.
“I’m watching him in awe in a lot of ways,” Garcia said. “He’s capable of breaking the game open when you get him the ball.”
Garcia also was responsible for the Niners pulling away early, keeping plays alive with his feet (he was sacked just once) and also throwing some deep strikes that for the most part have been missing from his repertoire this season.
Garcia did most of his damage in the first half, when he completed 11 of 17 for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 18 of 28 for 252 yards and four touchdowns – his first four-touchdown game of the season.
Besides the two touchdowns to Owens, Garcia also threw scoring passes of 47 yards to Tai Streets and nine yards to Barlow. His passer rating for the game of 132.7 was his best this season.
“Coming in and playing a co-first-place team the way we did, there are a lot of positive things to pull out of this game,” Garcia said. “It was an all-out team performance. It worked in every sort of direction. Everybody stepped up and did what they needed to do. I was disappointed about how we played in the second half, but we will correct that.”