SAN FRANCISCO – Alex Smith emerged from the pelting rain with his jersey soaked, cleats tattered with chunks of mud and the tape around his ankles stuck to his damp skin.
Never looked better in a 49ers uniform.
Through seven years of boos and banter, losses and letdowns and a series of injury setbacks, Smith walked off the field on a soggy Sunday at Candlestick Park guaranteed of a winning season for the first time in his NFL career.
And it’s only Week 11.
Smith threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns and the San Francisco 49ers forced five turnovers to blow past the Arizona Cardinals 23-7, moving oh-so close to clinching the NFC West in near record-setting fashion.
“You chase perfection like that, you’re never going to be perfect but it doesn’t change your mindset,” said Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick out of Utah. “It’s certainly not like we’re making all the plays out there, and today was evidence of that. We left a lot out there.”
Not as much as he once did.
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Smith tossed scores to Kyle Williams and Vernon Davis on the first two drives of the third quarter to help the 49ers pull away for their eighth straight victory. San Francisco (9-1) could wrap up the NFC West with a win at Baltimore on Thursday and a loss by Seattle against Washington next weekend.
The earliest team to clinch a division was the 1985 Chicago Bears in Week 11, according to STATS LLC. Three others have clinched in 11 games.
Now the 49ers, without a playoff appearance or winning record since 2002, can join them and push forward to bigger prizes.
“You come to the point where you just can’t always concede the last shove, there’s always going to give you the final shove,” first-year 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You can’t do it that way, you can’t play it that way.”
San Francisco plans to play hard until the end.
Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis and Dashon Goldson all intercepted passes by John Skelton. The quarterback for the Cardinals (3-7) lost for the first time in three starts this season in place of the injured Kevin Kolb.
The conditions turned out to be just perfect for San Francisco’s style.
With a chilly rainstorm pelting the Bay Area since Saturday, the 49ers defence bullied and bruised Arizona all over a slick field. The Cardinals converted only two first downs in the first half and didn’t make it past midfield until late in the third quarter.
“Their thing is keep the game close, don’t give up no big touchdowns and then get three points and three points, maybe get a score,” Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said “And that’s how they win the game.”
Once the rain subsided and a rainbow formed in the north sky above Candlestick, the 49ers finally opened up an otherwise passive passing game.
Smith connected with Williams on a route to the near pylon in the third quarter. Williams stretched over the goal line as he was tackled to complete the 8-yard TD catch.
After Skelton sailed a pass that Whitner stood under for an easy interception, Smith rallied San Francisco for another quick score.
He found Davis for an 18-yard touchdown to put San Francisco ahead 23-0. The tight end leaped over sideline cameramen and flexed his muscles to a rain-soaked crowd covered in ponchos and umbrellas in celebration.
Far too much for Arizona’s anemic offence to overcome.
Skelton had won the previous two games against St. Louis and Philadelphia since replacing Kolb, who’s out with a right foot and toe injury. Skelton was 6 of 19 for 99 yards and was benched after throwing his third interception in place of third-string quarterback Richard Bartel to start the fourth.
So much for that budding quarterback controversy.
Even Bartel’s only highlight came on a shaky pass between two defenders that landed in Fitzgerald’s hands for a 23-yard touchdown for Arizona’s lone score. The Cardinals dropped their fifth straight to the 49ers.
About the only fight Arizona showed came in the fourth quarter when Early Doucet appeared to hit Goldson after the defensive back sacked Bartel. Goldson came up and threw two punches to Doucet’s shoulder pads and facemask, getting a 15-yard personal foul penalty and an ejection.
The main fight was utter domination.
San Francisco outgained Arizona 431 to 229 yards of total offence. The 49ers also held the ball for more than 44 minutes and even got away with three missed field goals and a slowed-down running game.
“We take pride in outworking people,” Whitner said. “We’re happy about the win. But our long-term goals, we want to compete for a championship.”
The slick, sloppy surface at the start gave way to several slips.
Frank Gore started despite a right knee injury that knocked him out of a win over the New York Giants a week earlier, finishing with 88 yards rushing. He needs 61 more to pass the late Joe Perry (7,344) for San Francisco’s career rushing mark.
David Akers had been one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers – making 15 straight field goals – until a field flooded with water soaked his streak. He converted field goals from 43, 29 and 22 yards in the first half but had two kicks blocked and pulled another wide right.
Calais Campbell swatted the first attempt from 46 yards and Patrick Peterson blocked one from 30 yards. After Willis intercepted a pass by Skelton, the 49ers’ offence stalled and Akers lost his footing and sent a 49-yard attempt wide right.
The 49ers regained their rhythm in the second half and the one hiccup Smith showed came late.
He seemed to misread coverage and lofted a short pass that was intercepted in the end zone by Daryl Williams in the fourth quarter. Smith completed 20 of 38 passes in one of his best games of the season.
The only time he threw for more this season was when he had 291 yards in a win at Philadelphia.
“I really think,” Smith said, “we all understand what we can be when we’re rolling.”
Notes: Cardinals DT Dan Williams was carted off field with a broken left arm in the fourth quarter. … Davis’ TD was the 34th of his 49ers career, passing Brent Jones for the most by a tight end in franchise history. … 49ers FB Bruce Miller left with a head injury in the first half. … Cardinals RT Brandon Keith left with a concussion in the first half.
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