New and improved? Ugly loss shows Cards still have ways to go

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1. The Cardinals thought their Rodney Dangerfield days were over. Uh, not so fast.

After the franchise's first ever trip to the Super Bowl, Arizona figured it would get more respect. And the Cardinals looked like they were rounding into playoff form post-Halloween, winning four of their last five and dominating Minnesota a week ago in an NFC playoff preview.

But Monday night at Candlestick Park, in the 49ers' 24-9 victory, the new and improved Cardinals looked every bit as ugly as the old, dysfunctional Cardinals.

"I keep hoping we're over these games," Kurt Warner said.

Not yet. The Cardinals started Monday's game with three offside penalties. By the end of the game, they had turned the ball over seven times. Their run defense resembled a colander. None of their running backs could hold onto the ball -- after Tim Hightower fumbled he didn't carry the ball again. But rookies Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling also had fumbles. Eventually Ken Whisenhunt ran out of guys he could trust holding the football.

"This was obviously ugly for us," Whisenhunt said. "We're disappointed and embarrassed. We were overemotional and overexcited."

Maybe the Cardinals are still immature. They had the division title and playoff berth in their grasp. They were on Monday Night Football. And they were playing a NFC West opponent that is a thorn in their side.

The 49ers beat Arizona in Glendale in the season opener, ruining the start of the Cardinals defense of their NFC championship. The 49ers started the season 3-1 and were crowing about a shift in the division before they rudely came back to earth with a four-game slide. The Cardinals wanted to put the upstart 49ers in their place. Instead the 49ers completed a season sweep of the NFC champs.

Even after the loss on Monday, Arizona was loathe to give the 49ers the credit.

"It's not as much about matchups as about us not playing well," Whisenhunt said.

His players agreed.

"I don't think it was nothing they did," Darnell Dockett said. "We lost the game."

Arizona didn't much look like the same team that thrashed the Vikings a week earlier.

"We're more consistent this year than in the past," Warner said. "But we're not there yet."

2. The Cardinals and all their fans breathed a sigh of relief late in the third quarter.

That's when Larry Fitzgerald reappeared on the Arizona sideline and tested his leg. He had left the game during the Cardinal's first drive with a sprained right knee. Trying to make a play in the end zone when Warner threw into double coverage, Fitzgerald got tangled up with both 49ers defenders.

The Cardinals superstar receiver limped off the field and then limped into the locker room. In that moment, Arizona's playoff hopes seemed very precarious.

But Fitzgerald returned and played in the fourth quarter.

"It was a big scare," Whisenhunt said. "It might be something long term. But it was encouraging to see him come back."

Fitzgerald will have an MRI on Tuesday. The Cardinal nation will be nervously waiting for news.

3. The 49ers' playoff hopes are still alive. Barely.

The 49ers -- who haven't been to the playoffs since 2002 -- said all the right things after the game.

"We believe we can still make it to the playoffs," said Ahmad Brooks, who had three sacks as the 49ers were able to bring consistent pressure on Warner all game.

Here's the situation: the 49ers travel to Philadelphia next week, host Detroit and finish on the road at St. Louis. They need to win all three games to finish 9-7. The Cardinals travel to Detroit, host St. Louis and close the season by hosting Green Bay. Arizona needs to win two of those games to assure themselves of the division title, with a 10-6 record. If both teams finish 9-7, the 49ers would win the tiebreaker based on the regular season sweep.

"I like our chances," 49ers running back Frank Gore said.

But Whisenhunt likes his team's chances more.

"It's not really that big a deal for us," Whisenhunt said. "If we take care of our business from here on out, we'll win the division."

4. Frank Gore isn't finished.

There were questions about Gore due to his declining production in the three games leading up to Monday night (59, 33, and 25 yards). The player deemed "the bell cow" and centerpiece of the 49ers offense at the start of the season got lost in the 49ers transition from wanting to be the '85 Bears to becoming a spread offense. And it led some to ponder whether Gore -- who has been injury prone and has taken a pounding for five years -- might be near the end of his effectiveness as an every-down back.

Gore wanted to make a statement to those doubters. By halftime he had 104 yards on 13 carries, and runs of 36 and 31 yards. In the second half Gore pushed his way into the end zone for the 49ers' final touchdown, finished the game with 167 yards on 25 carries and allowed the 49ers to do what Singletary promised to do: run the ball when they needed to run the ball. That was exactly what the 49ers chose not to do in their deflating loss to Seattle.

"I'm happy the coaches let me back into it," Gore said. "The last couple of weeks I was very frustrated. I called Coach Singletary and he told me to keep sticking with it and we're going to try to get it going."

5. The 49ers defense apparently enjoys playing in prime time.

On a Thursday night in November, the 49ers defense came up with five interceptions against Jay Cutler. Monday night, they picked off Kurt Warner twice and forced five fumbles.

The 49ers contained the Cardinals' dangerous receivers: Anquan Boldin had five receptions for 40 yards, Fitzgerald just two receptions for 22 yards. Several of Warner's passes were off target.

It was a rough night for Warner. The last time Warner was in the Bay Area was last March, when he visited the 49ers as a free agent. But about 45 minutes into his visit he got word from the Big Guy Upstairs that he was "supposed to be in Arizona" and returned to sign a lucrative contract.

Presumably his mission was to help continue what the Cardinals had started last season, and to complete Arizona's transition from one-time laughing stock to NFC powerhouse.

Judging from Monday's game, there's still quite a ways to go.