This one was never supposed to be close. When the last-place 49ers took the field against the first-place Cardinals, oddsmakers declared them 10-point underdogs at home for the first time in nine years. When the division rivals met in September, Arizona trounced San Francisco, 47-7.
Credit the Niners for staying in it until the final minutes, but the end result was another defeat, all the more maddening because the red and gold could and perhaps should have won it. Instead, the Cardinals (9-2) prevailed, 19-13, and officially eliminated San Francisco (3-8) from the NFC West division race in front of a sold-out but half-empty Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.
In the 49ers' first home game since placing Colin Kaepernick on the injured reserve, replacement quarterback Blaine Gabbert capably led the offense, passing for 318 yards. But defense ruled the scoreboard in the first half and the two teams scored just nine points between them. Arizona took a 6-3 halftime lead largely because San Francisco's Bruce Ellington dropped a punt on the 49ers 38-yard-line. The Cardinals recovered, giving them another drive which resulted in their first field goal.
Catastrophic mistakes continued for the red and gold in the second half. The 49ers committed four defensive penalties inside their own 5-yard line on the same drive in the third quarter, allowing Arizona running back David Johnson to finally score the game's first touchdown, giving the Cardinals a 13-3 lead.
Gabbert responded with an impressive six-play drive capped by a touchdown pass to tight end Vance McDonald, bringing the Niners within three points.
In the fourth quarter of a tied game, it all came down to two drives, a sack that wasn't and a sack that was. San Francisco's defensive tackle Quinton Dial appeared to sack Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer. The 49ers and their fans were outraged when an official flagged Dial for roughing the passer, extending the Cardinals' drive.
On the other hand, San Francisco had no excuse for allowing Arizona to escape a third-and-19 situation moments later. With the defense on the field, wide receiver Torrey Smith made contact with a referee on the sideline, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a Cardinals first down. The 49ers committed 13 penalties in all. Palmer finally finished the drive with an eight-yard touchdown scramble.
By missing the extra point kick, Arizona gave San Francisco a chance to march down the field in the final minutes and win the game with a touchdown. Gabbert started the drive with four straight completions, reaching the Cardinals' 30-yard line.
But two incomplete passes later, the 49ers allowed the blitzing Cardinals to sack their quarterback for a backbreaking ten-yard loss. On fourth and 20, Gabbert's 18-yard completion to wide receiver Anquan Boldin gave Arizona the ball and the game.
In his first three games as starting quarterback, Gabbert has earned a 62.7 percent completion percentage and 88.9 passer rating.
Those numbers exceed Kaepernick's in the first eight games, when the pride of Turlock threw for a 59 percent completion percentage and 78.5 passer rating. However, Kap only recently revealed that he tore the labrum of his non-throwing shoulder during the Oct. 4 game against the Packers.
He underwent surgery on Nov. 24, his season is over and his future with the team is uncertain.
What is certain is that the 49ers are finished for 2015 and the fans who paid big bucks for the new $1.3 billion stadium are steaming about the team's rapid decline. One of them even made a suggestion concerning the team's CEO Jed York, paying for a plane over the field trailing a banner that read “Jed and The 49ers Should Mutually Part Ways.”
That's not likely to happen as his mother owns the team, but at least the 49ers Faithful can take comfort that every painful loss in this wasted season will improve the team's 2016 draft picks.