When the Cardinals scored a late touchdown Sunday but missed the usually automatic extra point, the reaction on the 49ers’ sideline was universal.
“The justice!” said tight end Vance McDonald.
After all, Arizona’s go-ahead drive, which broke a tie score, seemed to pivot more on the officiating crew than it did the two teams. The Cardinals were bailed out of a third-and-long scenario when a side judge was tripped up by 49ers receiver Torrey Smith along the sideline, which drew a 15-yard flag.
Another momentum-turning defensive play on the drive – a sack of Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer by defensive lineman Quinton Dial – was wiped out when Dial was penalized for roughing the passer. Instead of losing eight yards, the Cardinals picked up 15.
“There’s no debate here,” Palmer said afterward. “He hit me right in the face with the crown of his helmet.”
Dial, his 49ers teammates and thousands of fans had a different take. “When I watched replay, I saw he just kind of ducked into it and there was obviously nothing I could do at that point,” Dial said.
So when Arizona missed the extra point, which gave them a six-point lead with 2:21 to play, the 49ers figured that a bit of cosmic recompense would allow them to march downfield for a game-winning touchdown.
It didn’t happen that way. Blaine Gabbert’s fourth-and-20 throw to Anquan Boldin gained 18 yards, the 49ers turned the ball over on downs and the Cardinals came away with a 19-13 win.
The victory maintains Arizona’s three-game lead in the NFC West. The 49ers, meanwhile, have yet to win a contest against a division opponent. In fact, if the season ended today, they would have either the second or third pick in the draft, based on what the 2-8 Browns do against the Ravens on Monday.
“Yes, I believe there is progress,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said when asked if there were positives on Sunday. “But we’re in the business of winning games. We have to win games.”
The hard-luck penalties – “We felt like we were playing two teams,” Boldin said – masked solid efforts by Gabbert, who passed for a career-high 318 yards, as well as a defense that was decidedly more energized and aggressive than it was during the previous week’s loss to the Seahawks and certainly during a 47-7 blowout defeat to the Cardinals in Week 3.
The officiating crew also made its presence known on the Cardinals’ only other touchdown drive, which came midway through the third quarter. Arizona snapped the ball nine times inside San Francisco’s 4-yard line before David Johnson finally punched it into the end zone from a yard out. Four 49ers penalties – an array of pass-interference and illegal-use-of-hands calls – kept the drive alive.
But the series also signaled that scoring touchdowns against the 49ers on Sunday would not be easy.
“I don’t know how many plays that was, but ... for us to hold up like that shows we know how to play some goal-line defense,” said NaVorro Bowman, who led the 49ers with eight tackles.
Palmer entered the game with more touchdown passes, 27, than any other quarterback in the league. He had no touchdown passes Sunday and was rattled throughout the second half.
He did, however, manage to win the game. His best throw came with a 49er defender in his face, a 34-yard toss to receiver J.J. Nelson to San Francisco 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Palmer scored a rare rushing touchdown for what turned out to be the game-winning points.
Tackling was a major emphasis for the 49ers a week after Seahawks rookie Thomas Rawls ran for 209 yards against them, the most they had ever allowed. Rookie linebacker Eli Harold, who started Sunday’s game, said Tomsula set the tone in the team’s Wednesday meeting.
Was he angry?
“His words attack you,” Harold said after a pause. “But he wasn’t (ticked) off.”
The pep talk worked. After giving up 255 yards on the ground to the Seahawks, the 49ers allowed 70 to the Cardinals and sent their top two runners, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, to the sideline with injuries.
“They probably had a chip on their shoulder,” said Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd. “They felt embarrassed from the 47-7 game in Arizona, so they weren’t going to let that happen again.”