After spending most of the day watching various news outlets for storm updates and damage reports, I flipped away for the diversion of the 49ers/Cardinals matchup. After the debacle against the Giants was followed by only a middling performance against Seattle, the 49ers found themselves matched up with another NFC West upstart in the Arizona Cardinals. A Cardinal victory would have given them the division lead via tiebreaker. Plus, the Cardinals seem to be one of those chippy teams that likes to mouth off a lot, and they don't like the 49ers much. Needless to say, that feeling is mutual. But, the Cardinals are the Cardinals. After spending most of their existence in NFL Siberia, they had a miracle Super Bowl run a few years ago that ended with a last-second defeat. Since then, they turned back into the Cardinals. But, this season, they started off 4-0 and looked like they could be trouble until they lost 3 in a row. They boast a bit of talent, led by Larry Fitzgerald, but they have no quarterback that can adequately throw him the ball, and going up against a Defense like the 49ers, that hadn't allowed an opponent more than 6 points in 4 of their
last 5 games, that should have spelled imminent disaster. The question was, could Alex Smith get his sea legs back and perform at the level he'd been performing at earlier in the season. Could the 49ers get back to that complete team effort for the game? The answer turned out to be a resounding Yes on both counts, as Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 passes (the only incompletion coming on a Delanie Walker drop), threw for 3 Touchdowns, and with a lead could sit back and let the Defense do the rest. End result: A resounding 24-3 victory that re-asserted the 49ers as one of the best in the NFC.
The 49ers started out sticking to the recipe that served them well against Seattle. After an opening punt pinned the Cardinals deep in their own end, the 49ers allowed the Cardinals nothing on the ground. The Cardinals were down to their 3rd Running Back, LaRod Stephen-Hawking, and the 49ers exploited this, allowing him 6 yards on 8 carries for the game, and allowed the Cardinals all of 7 yards rushing in total. The 49ers forced a punt and their second drive, comprised mostly of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter plowing out yards, culminated in an acrobatic Touchdown catch by Michael Crabtree, who leapt over Patrick Peterson to reel in the pass and land in the end zone.
The following 3 49ers possessions yielded two punts and a Field Goal to extend the lead to 10-0, but not to worry. Arizona Quarterback John Skelton, forced to throw early and often, could only complete short passes to inch down the field, unless he was airmaling his receivers. After forcing yet another punt, Alex Smith set to work to extend the lead, completing 6 of 6 passes to get the 49ers down the field, spreading the ball around to 4 different receivers before finishing with his specialty: a 3rd down pass to Michael Crabtree, who juked Peterson out of his jock and outran him into the End Zone to extend the lead to 17-0 at Halftime.
The second half was more or less controlled by the Defense. The 49ers first offensive drive ended with their final score, featuring Smith hitting Randy Moss on a short pass and Moss breaking a tackle and sprinting away from everyone for a 47-yard Touchdown, where he looked more like 2002 Randy Moss more than 2012 Randy Moss. After that, the defense just stepped on the Cardinals throats, allowing only a field goal and sacking Skelton 3 times as he desperately tried to drag the Cardinals back into the game. But it wasn't happening on this night. Their final drive was the only drive that managed to gain momentum, and even that was halted when his 4th down pass to Fitzgerald ended with Fitzgerald tackled a yard shy of the goal line, allowing the 49ers to take over and run out the clock.
The 49ers appear, at least for the moment, to have righted the ship. At 6-2, they have a 2-game lead in the NFC West, and a 2-0 record in the division. After the bye, they play another long time rival, the St. Louis Rams, before a pair of difficult games against Chicago and New Orleans. Things appear OK for now. The defense has been strong, if not as opportunistic with their turnovers as they were last year. It's been enough, though, that they have been just about impossible to run against with consistency, and most importantly, that they've been able to keep the other team off the scoreboard. This seems to be the recipe that works for them. It certainly worked last night, and proved a most pleasant diversion to the barrage of hurricane coverage.