Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is an MVP candidate this season, and he showed why on Sunday afternoon, taking his team on a long fourth-quarter drive for the go-ahead touchdown in a 19-13 victory over the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
But what many of 49ers fans will remember from this game is a controversial penalty call against San Francisco that helped Palmer pull off the game-winning drive.
After moving from their own 15 to their 32, the Cardinals faced a second-and-10 when defensive lineman Quinton Dial busted through the offensive line to drive Palmer into the turf for a sack and an 8-yard loss. But the officials ruled unnecessary roughness on Dial for leading with the crown of his helmet into Palmer’s chest.
The 49ers were docked 15 yards and Arizona received a first down at its own 47. Nine plays later, Arizona scored on an 8-yard Palmer scramble.
Perhaps the Cardinals would have earned a first down on their own on a third-and-18 play. But, nobody will ever know. The call proved to be a turning point on the drive and many NFL observers were surprised by what looked like a clean, though hard, sack by Dial.
Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group tweeted, “Terrible call.” Damon Bruce of 95.7 The Game tweeted, “Roughing the passer with a textbook hit? This is the poorest officiated game of the season. That was perfect.” Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee noted that the officials seemingly had taken over the game.
It was one of 13 penalties called against the 49ers on Sunday, resulting in 81 yards and several key changes in momentum. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were flagged just seven times for 47 yards.
And yet, the 49ers still had a chance to win the game. Arizona missed the PAT, meaning the 49ers could win with a touchdown and extra point.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert moved his team from its own 21 to the Arizona 30 with 1:27 remaining. But then, Gabbert was sacked for a 10-yard loss and on fourth-and-20, he completed a throw to Anquan Boldin, but Boldin was stopped 2 yards short of a first down.
The Cardinals then ran out the clock to lock up the victory, their first in the Bay Area against the Niners since 2008. It improves their NFC West-leading record to 9-2.
The 49ers fell to 3-8, which mathematically eliminates them from an NFC West title – not that anyone expected them to win all of their remaining games, anyway.
The 49ers defense played well, holding high-scoring Arizona to just 19 points and 337 yards and twice forcing Arizona to settle for field goals.
At the half, Arizona led just 6-3. The Cardinals scored a TD in the third quarter, but the 49ers quickly answered with a Vance McDonald touchdown catch from Gabbert and a Phil Dawson field goal late in the third quarter to tie the game 13-13.
Then, aided by the questionable call on Dial, the Cardinals marched to their game-winning score.
Gabbert again played well in his third start since taking over for Colin Kaepernick, completing 25-of-36 passes for 318 yards and a TD, with an interception, posting a quarterback rating of 94.4.
Boldin had eight catches for 93 yards and McDonald had a strong game with six catches for 71 yards. Defensively, linebacker NaVorro Bowman led a fired-up front seven – that put constant pressure on Palmer (though he was sacked just once) – with eight tackles.
The 49ers next play at Chicago against the Bears this coming Sunday.