Cards spoil Niners' playoff hopes in win

SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 24, 2006) -- Kurt Warner went from an Iowa supermarket to the NFL's pinnacle, winning a Super Bowl and two MVP awards along the way. Yet he still got nervous replacing Matt Leinart while the Arizona Cardinals held off the 49ers in a nearly meaningless game.

Warner finally squashed those butterflies -- and San Francisco's playoff hopes -- with one last clock-killing drive.

Leinart passed for 162 yards before spraining his left shoulder before halftime, and Warner finished up with 105 yards passing in the Cardinals' fourth victory in six games, 26-20 to eliminate San Francisco (6-9) from postseason contention.

Leinart was injured when Roderick Green sacked him shortly before halftime, and the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner is out for the season. Warner, the former shelf-stocker who became a superstar, was back in charge nearly three months after losing his job to the high-profile rookie.

Warner wasn't asked to do much while Arizona nursed a second-half lead, but he coolly directed Arizona's final drive, completing two long passes for first downs before finishing the Cards' five-minute march with three straight kneeldowns.

"We just want to finish the season finally playing the way we wanted to play the whole year," Warner said. "I think they know what I can do, but when you sit out for 10 weeks, even you aren't sure how you're going to feel, what the speed of the game is."

Warner also appeared to back off recent retirement talk, saying, "I feel great. I want to play some more (next season), but in what capacity and where, that's to be determined."

Edgerrin James had 105 yards to become Arizona's first 1,000-yard rusher in eight years, while Larry Fitzgerald caught a TD pass and Marcel Shipp ran for another score as the Cardinals (5-10) jumped to an early 20-3 lead, then held on for their fourth straight win over the 49ers.

Improbably, Arizona is a division-best 4-2 against NFC West opponents during its eighth consecutive losing season.

"Unofficially, we're the best in the West," James said. "Even though we don't get a chance to go to the playoffs, we know we have the best divisional record, and that's big. This is something you learn from."

Alex Smith passed for 190 yards, and Frank Gore 's second touchdown run with 5:00 to play cut Arizona's lead to six points. But the 49ers couldn't get the ball back after two earlier fourth-quarter drives ended in turnovers.

Gore rushed for just 51 yards, failing to surpass Garrison Hearst's single-season rushing record in a roundly disappointing afternoon for the 49ers, who still entertained hopes of winning the division and getting to the playoffs just two seasons after going 2-14.

"You can't learn anything from losing," 49ers linebacker Brandon Moore said. "You can say we played well, but when it comes down to it, you learn nothing from losing except losing."

Neil Rackers, who kicked six field goals in the Cardinals' win over San Francisco in Mexico City last season, connected from 25, 39, 37 and 32 yards -- but television replays appeared to show his 37-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter actually missed.

Leinart's injury was just one of several personnel problems for both teams. Linebacker Gerald Hayes, Arizona's leading tackler, was scratched for the first time all season with injured ribs, while cornerback David Macklin strained his hamstring early in the second half.

The 49ers lost left tackle Jonas Jennings to a dislocated right shoulder in the first quarter, and Arnaz Battle had seven catches while picking up the slack from Antonio Bryant, who began his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

"The guys that stepped in did a good job, but it wasn't enough," Smith said. "We had a lot of distractions this week. It's important to get back to football next week and make the most of one last game."

Smith threw a tipped interception and Battle fumbled on consecutive offensive plays in the fourth quarter while San Francisco trailed by less than a touchdown. The Niners then converted a fourth down on the way to Gore's 1-yard TD plunge, but never saw the ball again.

The Cardinals beat San Francisco 34-27 in the opening game in their gorgeous new stadium in September, but lost their next eight games to spark rumors of coach Dennis Green's imminent firing. Yet with Leinart building cohesion with his teammates each week, Arizona has become an improved offensive team, scoring at least 17 points in seven straight games.

"We don't like the fact that we're not in the playoff hunt," Green said. "A lot of teams got eliminated today, including San Francisco."

Notes:

The 49ers wore their cherry-red throwback jerseys for the second time this season. ... James is the Cardinals' first 1,000-yard rusher since Adrian Murrell did it in 1998. ... Leinart won't require surgery, but will undergo an MRI exam on Wednesday.

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