West-leading Cards squeak out win over pesky 49ers


It wasn't pretty, but the playoff-bound Cardinals (9-2) remain in the driver's seat of the NFC West after knocking off the 49ers (3-8) 19-13 on Sunday -- Arizona's first win in San Francisco since 2008. Here's what you need to know:

1. Give the 49ers credit. After piling up nearly 36 points per game over their last three tilts, the Cardinals were made to look human on Sunday. Facing an active front seven, quarterback Carson Palmer threw for just 97 yards in the first half while Arizona's banged-up cast of runners were a liability the entire way. Niners coordinator Eric Mangini overcame a flood of penalties to keep it close and shut down the passing lanes. Palmer's 48-yard strike to John Brown and his 34-yarder to speedy J.J. Nelson -- setting up Palmer's game-sealing touchdown scamper -- were among the few memorable plays from an offense that has thrilled fans all season. We can overreact to Sunday's less-than-pretty performance, but from another angle, the Cardinals won this game with a 14-play, 85-yard march that chewed 7:57 off the clock. That marks their longest drive all year.

2. Blaine Gabbert continues to operate as an upgrade over Colin Kaepernick. After generating just three points in the first half, Gabbert came out of the break to lead San Francisco on a 77-yard touchdown march capped by his eight-yard scoring strike to Vance McDonald. The former Jaguars flameout hit passes of 48, 41, 20, 18, 17 and 16 yards over the final 30 minutes. That's progress! Gabbert showed newfound poise outside the pocket, but it was distressing to see San Francisco finish 0-for-9 on third downs. Averaging 8.8 yards per throw, though, puts the "Gabbert Zone" jokes back in bubble wrap.

3. A painful day for Arizona's backfield: Both Chris Johnson (knee) and Andre Ellington (foot) left for the locker room in the second half. Neither returned. It's fair to ask if Johnson is slowing down. After rushing for 348 yards at 5.9 yards per carry in October, the artist formerly known as CJ2K was held to just 3.0 yards per rush in November. Johnson lacked punch again on Sunday with just 17 yards off 12 carries. Keep in mind that Arizona averaged 2.4 yards per tote on Sunday after the Seahawks amassed 255 yards at 5.8 yards per tote just seven days ago. We could see plenty of rookie David Johnson down the stretch.

4. It's redundant to nitpick the Niners at this stage, but it was distressing to watch San Francisco's defense pile up a whirlwind of penalties in the red zone, end zone and everywhere else. The flags masked over an otherwise stout effort at the line of scrimmage.

5. We'll continue to tout Tyrann Mathieu as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after the Cardinals safety picked off a pass and drove the 49ers crazy all day with a team-leading 13 tackles, two passes defensed and a tackle for loss. One of the most versatile defenders league-wide, Mathieu is playing the best football of his life.

6. Not a bad outing for Shaun Draughn, the reserve 49ers back who held his own on the ground (15/51) and gave Gabbert a reliable target, hauling in five passes for 35 yards out of the backfield. Wait, why did the Browns cut this guy?