The 49ers led the Cardinals for thirty five minutes and some change, and then nearly came from behind in the final seconds to pull off an upset in Arizona on Monday Night Football. Instead, Mike Singletary's inspired team was stuffed one yard shy of the goal line on a final carry up the middle by Michael Robinson, as the 49ers lost to the NFC West Divisional leaders 29-24.
Taking over with 1:06 left, quarterback Shaun Hill connected with Jason Hill on three consecutive passes to advance from his own 42 to the Arizona 1-yardline. It took the 49ers about 20 seconds after Hill's catch to get up to the line and spike the ball, leaving San Francisco with 20 seconds left to work with.
"I think we could have done a heck of a lot better job," said head coach Mike Singletary. "It looked like Shaun was just taking all day but we had to get guys aligned right or it is a penalty. So we had to wait on the guys before Shaun could spike it."
On 2nd and goal after the spike, Frank Gore tried to get the left edge, but he was barely touched by Chike Okeafor and tripped up. Officials reviewed the play and determined that Gore was down by contact back at the 2.
Prior to the officials opting to review the play, Hill had lined up the offense and spiked the ball to stop the clock.
"I was told when they were reviewing it that the ball was going to be spotted and the clock was going to be stopped and it was going to wind on the snap," said Hill. "We called the play and then right before they were about to come back from the review, one of the sideline judges told Coach Singletary that the clock was going to start on the ref's wind, so we knew we had to get up and get the ball snapped as soon as the ball was ready for play."
Sloppy officiating, along with the 49ers poor use of the clock, which Singletary referred to as "a little ridiculous," created a chaotic situation, but when it came down to it, the 49ers simply failed to finish.
"For us, in a nutshell, we played together, we played as a team," said Singletary. "We came here to win, but in the end, we did not finish. You have to finish and we did not."
Mike Martz's finishing play called for Gore to split out wide with Robinson in the backfield. There was an initial surge but the Cardinals stonewalled Robinson at the one to seal the Arizona victory.
"Coach Martz felt there would be a cavity inside so we made that call," said Singletary.
The 49ers will be left stewing over how close they came on the final two plays, but they weren't their only mishaps.
San Francisco garnered the initial lead with a 104-yard return by Allen Rossum on the opening kickoff, and then extended it to a 21-13 halftime cushion with a pair of Hill touchdown passes.
His first was a beautiful rainbow pass to rookie Josh Morgan for a 31-yard score on the first play of the second quarter. His second came at the end of the quarter on an 18-yard strike to Vernon Davis, who hauled in the pass over Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson right under the goal post.
Arizona opened the third quarter with a scoring drive that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald on a 4th and 1 play.
The 49ers immediately countered with a Joe Nedney field goal to stay ahead of Arizona by four points.
But the 49ers offense then coughed up the ball twice on a fumble and then an interception, which handed Arizona the ball at the 10 and then the 5-yardline.
The defense forced a Neil Rackers field goal on the first turnover, bringing the Cardinals to within a point at the start of the fourth quarter.
Two possession later, Hill was intercepted by Karlos Dansby, who returned the ball to the 5-yardline.
Two plays after Hill was picked by Dansby, Warner, who notched his third consecutive 300-yard passing day with 328 yards through the air, delivered a 4-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin to give Arizona their first lead of the game with just over four minutes left to play.
"Total ball security is one of the main keys and I gave it away three times. I put our defense in bad situations and they responded well," said Hill. "Those are inexcusable."
Hill and the offense managed to overcome a 3rd and long situation and then a holding penalty to advance to the Arizona 18-yardline, but the 49ers new starting quarterback then tried to flick a shovel pass to Frank Gore that was instead stolen by Adrian Wilson.
"Shaun wants to win. He's trying to make something happen. He thought he saw the guy open, he tries to throw the ball underneath," said Singletary. "He gets it to the guy, 'hey, great play, you made something happen,' and you love the guy. But, it didn't happen that way so it's 'what a dumb an idiotic thing to do at such a critical time.' Shaun is a blue collared guy. I love Shaun. I think Shaun was trying to do everything that he possibly could to do it the right way. It's a shame that it ended the way it did."
The defense answered with a three and out stance after the turnover to force an Arizona punt, giving the offense back the ball for one final shot at snatching victory.
Although Hill got his unit down to the one, time simply ran out.
"I had confidence it would work," said Hill of the final play call with Robinson. "Those guys up front do a good job of firing off the ball and so we felt like we could get a crease in there."
In his first start of the year, Hill finished 19 of 40 for 217 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 60.1 QB Rating.
"I'm very disappointed by the outcome, and it was a direct reflection of my turnovers in the second half," said Hill.
Game Notes: The 49ers defense held Arizona to 46 yards of total rushing, and a 2.4 average. Frank Gore had 99 yards for the 49ers on 23 carries, for a 4.3 average.
Game Injuries: WR Josh Morgan suffered an abdominal strain in the game, while TE Delanie Walker suffered a shoulder injury.