In the first half Sunday in Arizona, San Francisco had plenty of opportunities to blow the Cardinals right out of the game.
But to the 49ers, red apparently means “stop,” so getting into the red zone just meant stalled drives and getting three points instead of seven. The result was a 21-19 Cardinals victory and some lost ground in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
While the 49ers were losing to Arizona to drop to 10-3, the New Orleans Saints were beating Tennessee 22-17 to improve to 10-3. With three games to go, the 49ers and Saints are tied for the second-best record in the NFC behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers.
On Sunday in Arizona, the 49ers had their chances but fell short.
Three times in the first half, the Niners drove inside the Cardinals’ 10, but couldn’t convert on third-down plays at the 4-, 5- and 6-yard lines. Instead, the 49ers settled for David Akers field goals.
Still, at the half, the 49ers held a 12-7 lead, and then upped it to 19-7 when Frank Gore broke free on their first play of the third quarter for a 37-yard TD run.
Those were the last points the 49ers would score, however, as backup quarterback John Skelton – who took over for starter Kevin Kolb, who was knocked out on the Cardinals’ third play of the game – threw two TD passes in the second half to lead the Cardinals to their fifth win in six games.
Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald on a 46-yard TD play to cut the San Francisco lead to 19-14, then completed a 3-yard TD pass to Andre Roberts with 11:55 remaining in the game to go up 21-19.
The Niners had three more possessions to try to re-take the lead but went 3-and-out on their first two and saw their last chance slip away on Alex Smith’s incomplete pass on fourth down from their own 41 with 1:57 remaining. With no timeouts left, the 49ers could only watch as the Cardinals ran out the clock with three straight kneel-downs by Skelton.
Smith completed 18-of-37 passes for 175 yards, with Michael Crabtree grabbing seven balls for 63 yards. Gore carried just 10 times for 72 yards and passed 1,000 yards rushing this season, the fifth time in his career he has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark.
Aside from being 0-for-3 in the red zone, the 49ers also were a miserable 3-for-17 on third-down conversions and allowed five sacks of Smith.
The Niners played without standout inside linebacker Patrick Willis, and lost starting left tackle Joe Staley early in the game with a concussion.
San Francisco’s next game is a Monday night matchup at Candlestick Park Dec. 19 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.