SAN FRANCISCO — The Arizona Cardinals lost their discipline and a chance to clinch a second straight NFC West crown. They threw the ball away, and they fumbled it even more.
Alex Smith threw touchdown passes after two of Arizona’s seven turnovers, Frank Gore ran for 167 yards and another score and the San Francisco 49ers kept their slim playoff hopes alive with a dominating 24-9 victory Monday night.
“I don’t think it’s anything they did,” Arizona tackle Darnell Dockett said. “We lost this game ourselves.”With a relentless defensive attack, San Francisco forced the sloppy Cardinals into five first-half turnovers and kept Kurt Warner from finding a groove. Warner threw two interceptions in the opening half after going 130 passes without a pick.
Arizona (8-5) can still clinch the division by winning two of its final three games.
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“Getting a win against a team playing great ball that had a chance to clinch the division, we came out and dominated,” Gore said. “They let me get in the zone. Any back who gets in that zone, it’s hard to stop them.”
Gore had his most productive game since Week 2, running over a defense that held Adrian Peterson to 19 yards in a win over Minnesota last week. Gore was certainly motivated for a big night after getting only 30 yards on 22 carries in a season-opening victory at Arizona on Sept. 13.
Smith, coming off a loss at Seattle last week in which he threw for a career-high 310 yards, connected on TD passes to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and finished 19 of 35 for 144 yards. The 49ers (6-7) answered coach Mike Singletary’s challenge to make a statement on the national stage against the reigning NFC champions.
The Cardinals matched the NFL high for turnovers this season with their second game with six or more in 2009, much to the delight of the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park. They had seven last season against the Jets in a 56-35 loss.
The 49ers forced seven turnovers for the first time since getting eight against New Orleans on Sept. 14, 1997. They had a franchise-record five forced fumbles, two by safety Dashon Goldson.
“I don’t think clinching the division was ever that big of a thing,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We were wanting to play against an opponent that had beaten us earlier this year, and it was on Monday Night Football, and we had an emotional game against Minnesota the week before. We were excited and we lost our discipline, and that’s something you cannot do.”
Not long ago, San Francisco hoped this game would be for the division title, but the Niners had lost six of eight following a 3-1 start. They showed up for this one, on a night former San Francisco stars Steve Young and Jerry Rice worked the pregame show for ESPN on the sideline.
“I can’t really express to you how proud I am of our team,” Singletary said. “That was the thing we talked about all week: ’Let’s go out and see how good we can be without killing ourselves.”’
Warner followed the best four-game stretch of his career with a dud — going 16 of 29 for 178 yards and getting sacked four times. Warner joined Johnny Unitas as the only quarterbacks to post a passer rating of at least 120 in four straight games.
“It’s a crazy game sometimes,” Warner said. “It’s like anything in life. You get to a point and you think, ’OK, maybe now we’re there.’ And then you find out you’re not quite there yet. That’s what we continue to find out.”
It didn’t help matters the Cardinals lost star receiver Larry Fitzgerald early in the second half to a right knee injury after Goldson landed on him. He later returned.
Davis caught his 11th touchdown pass of the season, extending his franchise record for a tight end. Crabtree’s second career TD reception was a 35-yard catch 52 seconds before halftime. Joe Nedney added a 37-yard field goal.
Arizona finally got on the board on Neil Rackers’ 48-yard field goal with 5:52 left in the third quarter, then Beanie Wells pounded into the end zone on an impressive second effort on fourth-and-goal from the 1 early in the final quarter. Ray McDonald blocked the extra-point attempt.
“When you force turnovers like we did tonight, having six, seven, there’s no way you can lose,” cornerback Dre’ Bly said.
Arizona was out of sync from the start. The Cardinals jumped offside on three of four snaps during the 49ers’ opening drive.
San Francisco used up its second and final review of the game with 4:39 left in the first quarter, winning that one to give Bly a recovery of Tim Hightower’s fumble and a first-and-goal at the 8 for the 49ers.Smith threw a 5-yard pass to Davis two plays later for a 7-0 lead.
“Each of our backs had a fumble. That’s certainly not acceptable,” Whisenhunt said. “Obviously it was ugly for us. We’re all disappointed and embarrassed.”
Crabtree wound up with five catches for 67 yards.