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Six Points: Cardinals getting closer, but still not on 49ers’ level

For the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday’s 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was both very familiar and very different.

The familiar part was the result. The defeat was their eighth in the last nine matchups against San Francisco, and their fifth straight loss at Candlestick Park.

The difference was in the details. Unlike so many other losses to the 49ers, this one was very much in doubt heading into the fourth quarter. But ultimately the Cardinals were just too generous with the football, and San Francisco took advantage.

Here are six things that stood out to me in Sunday’s loss:

1. It feels weird, but you have to pin a good portion of the blame on Larry Fitzgerald – I know oodles of fans are calling for the beginning of the Drew Stanton quarterbacking era for the Arizona Cardinals, but this loss isn’t solely on the shoulders of Carson Palmer, who threw two first-quarter picks that led to six San Francisco points. Nor is the responsibility of the loss on Alfonso Smith, who coughed up the football on his only carry of the game. Nope, this one goes (maybe for the first time in his career) to Larry Fitzgerald. The veteran receiver gutted it out and played through a hamstring injury. Hell, he even outran the 49ers defense on a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But his fumble late in the third quarter sealed the Cardinals’ fate.

Arizona trailed by only two points and were on the move when Fitzgerald got a little loose with the football, fumbling inside the 49ers’ 15-yard-line. San Francisco then embarked on an epic 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that took 9:32 off the clock and all the wind out of the Cardinals’ sails.

“I’m not going to sleep at all,” Fitzgerald told the media after the game. “I let my team down.”

2. But Palmer isn’t off the hook, either – Palmer was simply dreadful in the first quarter, and if not for a tremendous job by the Cardinals’ defense holding San Francisco to two Phil Dawson field goals following interceptions, this game might have been out of hand early.

Palmer has now thrown at least one interception in every game this season and has been picked 11 times this season — the most by any NFL quarterback not named Eli Manning — and one less than the other three starting quarterbacks in the NFC West combined.

Last Monday, head coach Bruce Arians told Dan Bickley and myself that his level of concern was “high” when it came to Palmer’s interceptions, but intimated that the quarterback was just trying to do too much. After two more picks Sunday, that concern level has got to be peaking in the red.

3. And yeah, about that Alfonso Smith play… – The Cardinals, for the first time in a long time, are very deep at the running back position. Veteran starter Rashard Mendenhall looked decent Sunday, running for 40 yards on 10 carries. Rookie Andre Ellington has been the most exciting offensive player on the field this season for the Cardinals, and had 56 yards on just seven carries (8.0 yards per pop) against San Francisco. Another rookie, Stepfan Taylor got two carries, one for five yards and another on which he moved the sticks on a third down and one.

So why, with the Cardinals trailing by nine points and under seven minutes to play, did Alfonso Smith get his first carry of the game? We know what happened — Smith fumbled, NaVorro Bowman recovered and four plays later, the 49ers put the game totally out of reach with a 44-yard field goal by Dawson to cap the scoring.

Meanwhile, an intriguing player is languishing on the sidelines each Sunday. Ryan Williams has yet to dress for a game this season after impressing the coaching staff late in the preseason. It’s time to see what he can do when it counts. Smith may be more valuable in the eyes of the coaches because he plays special teams, but a fumble like the one he gave away Sunday will put a player in the doghouse quickly.

4. Karlos Dansby is a beast – For the first three or four games of the season, Dansby looked like a shadow of his former self — a player that was a ball-hawking playmaker for the Cardinals defense for six seasons.

The last two weeks, Dansby has been arguably the best Cardinal defender on the field. He was an absolute demon at Candlestick, registering 11 tackles, half of a quarterback sack and deflected three passes, one of which led to a Yeremiah Bell interception that thwarted a San Francisco drive inside the red zone.

5. Decision making on kickoff and punt returns has got to improve – It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen it, but both Javier Arenas and Patrick Peterson made bad decisions in the return game Sunday. In the first quarter, Arenas took a Dawson kickoff seven yards deep and returned it — all the way to the Cardinals’ 12-yard line. Peterson fielded two punts inside the 10-yard line, and nearly fumbled one away. The first one led to a holding penalty that started a Cardinals’ drive at their own 3-yard line.

We all know about Peterson’s ability on punt returns, but it’s been a pretty long time since he’s taken one to the house — 27 games to be exact. The Cardinals’ offense has enough issues than to be saddled by poor starting field position because of return men who are “trying to make something happen.”

6. SF fans did you one better, Arizona – In this space last week, I admonished Cardinals fans for doing “the wave” when Arizona had the ball. One, and most importantly, I don’t like “the wave” and secondly if you’re going to do it, you don’t do it when the home team has the football.

Now a reminder to 49ers fans — DON’T DO IT WHEN THERE’S AN INJURY SERIOUS ENOUGH TO BRING THE CART OUT ONTO THE FIELD! Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell was injured in the fourth quarter while making a tackle, and you could tell immediately that it was rather serious just judging from the reaction of players on both teams. In the time that Campbell was being attended to, the Candlestick crowd (who apparently has a raging case of A.D.D.) thought it would be a good idea to pass the time by doing “the wave.” Classless. At least some of the 49ers players had the awareness to signal them to stop.

See, I told you nothing good comes from doing “the wave.” Nothing.

Thoughts and prayers are going out to Campbell, in hopes of a full and speedy recovery.