For the second straight game, the 49ers lost their cool, lost a lead and lost the contest.
This time, they took a 14-6 lead and what appeared to be an unstoppable offense into halftime, only to be ravaged by costly penalties and wide-open opposing receivers in the second half.
They fell 23-14 to an Arizona Cardinals team they had beaten nine times in their previous 10 meetings. The Cardinals (3-0) lead the 49ers (1-2) by two games in the NFC West.
The 49ers have been outscored 52-3 in the second half this season, a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde personality coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t explain.
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“We’ve got to figure it out,” he said.
As was the case after last week’s loss to Chicago, wide receiver Anquan Boldin had the strongest take on the defeat. Boldin said it seemed as if the 49ers have been dealing with two opponents – the other team and the officiating crew. After being hit with 16 penalties against the Bears, the 49ers were penalized nine times for 107 yards against Arizona. Six penalties came in the second half. The Cardinals were flagged five times for 36 yards.
“For me, it’s been obvious the last two weeks: The amount of calls that have gone against us and the amount of calls that we’ve gotten hasn’t been close,” Boldin said. “Every week, it’s the same thing – send the tape in, the NFL just reports back, ‘We made a mistake.’ But at the same time, the crap cost us another game. At some point, they need to be held accountable.”
The 49ers entered the game without their top two tight ends, Vernon Davis (ankle) and Vance McDonald (knee), and went with an alignment uncharacteristically heavy on wide receivers. Using five wideouts in conjunction with a no-huddle offense surprised Arizona, and the 49ers put together long touchdown drives on their first two possessions. Colin Kaepernick went into the locker room 14 for 18 for 116 yards with a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree.
But they couldn’t sustain the momentum in the second half while the defense couldn’t keep on top of the Cardinals.
The critical drive came after Arizona cut the lead to 14-13 in the third quarter. First, Dan Skuta was called for an illegal hit on quarterback Drew Stanton. On the next play, Patrick Willis was called for the same infraction, even though he seemed to use his shoulder on a big hit on Stanton. The penalty moved the ball to the San Francisco 25-yard line and drew animated protests from Willis and his fellow 49ers defenders.
“You’ve got to have emotion when you’re out there playing, but at the same time, you have to be able to control them,” Willis said. “... If I kind of got rowdy out there, my apologies.”
Rowdiness was a problem for the 49ers. The Cardinals scored the go-ahead touchdown on the drive, and the 49ers continued to unravel. They were hit with four more 15-yard penalties, including one on Boldin for headbutting safety Tony Jefferson.
The penalty came on Arizona’s 6-yard line, the closest the 49ers came to the goal line in the second half. They ended up attempting a field goal that was blocked.
Boldin said he had been “taking shots” from the Cardinals defensive backs all game.
“Told the coach that; told the ref that three times,” Boldin said. “ ‘Oh, I didn’t see it. I’ll look for it.’ But as soon as we do something, wow, you see it. But when guys are doing crap to us, ‘We didn’t catch it.’ ”
The 49ers also began last season 1-2 but then went on a five-game winning streak that helped propel them into the playoffs. They host 3-0 Philadelphia on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got to regroup in a hurry. We’ve got a lot of good football teams to play.”