GLENDALE, ARIZ. - The Cardinals scored from great distances, the 49ers misfired at close range, and the race for a playoff bye suddenly got a lot tighter.
The bottom line for the 49ers in their 21-19 loss Sunday was a familiar one. The offense had plenty of chances to knock an opponent out of the game early but ended up settling for short field goals instead of touchdowns.
Over the last six games, the 49ers have made 19 trips inside the opponent's 20 yard line. The result: 15 field-goal attempts, three touchdowns and one interception. "We attacked. We went after it and we just didn't convert," said coach Jim Harbaugh of his team's red-zone woes. "That's on all of us. That's on all of us on the offensive side of the ball."
Sunday was the first time since a Week 2 overtime loss to the Cowboys that the 49ers struggled on both offense and defense, and Harbaugh's locker room speech afterward amounted to a challenge to his players about how they would handle the defeat with the playoffs looming next month.
The loss, coupled with a Saints win, means the two teams are tied with 10-3 records. The 49ers, however, own the tiebreaker for getting the No. 2 seed - and the first-round bye that comes with it -- because of a better record against conference opponents.
The 49ers had three more chances inside Arizona's red-zone on Sunday. In fact, they had the ball inside the Cardinals 10-yard line three times in the first half alone. The plays they ran at close range resulted in five incomplete passes and two runs for minus-four yards.
Unlike previous games, San Francisco's defense didn't bail out the sputtering offense.
Instead Cardinals backup quarterback John Skelton, who three weeks earlier was pulled from game against the 49ers, threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
He hit receiver Early Doucet on a 60-yard catch and run in the second quarter after linebacker Larry Grant -- substituting for injured Patrick Willis -- failed to slow Doucet off the line of scrimmage. In the third quarter, Skelton and his favorite target, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, hooked up for a 46-yard touchdown after Fitzgerald outdueled 49ers safety Dashon Goldson for the ball in the air.
In the fourth quarter, a 53-yard reception by Fitzgerald -- on which both Grant and Goldson missed tackles -- set up Skelton's last score, a three-yard swing pass to receiver Andre Roberts.
"They made plays on the ball and we didn't when the ball was in the air," said safety Donte Whitner. "As a secondary, we felt like it was really on our shoulders, and we lost this football game collectively."
Kevin Kolb started the game at quarterback for Arizona but left in the first quarter after linebacker Ahmad Brooks' leg inadvertently struck Kolb's helmet when the quarterback was on the ground.
In came Skelton, the starter in teams' Nov. 20 meeting. The 49ers' strategy in that game - a 23-7 San Francisco win -- was to drop their defenders in coverage in the hope of fooling Skelton into throwing bad passes. He obliged by throwing three interceptions in that game, and he had two more on Sunday.
But the 49ers' offense once again couldn't take advantage of those turnovers. Receiver Braylon Edwards, the team's best red-zone threat, returned from a one-game absence but still looked as if he was badly out of sync with quarterback Alex Smith. Smith targeted him twice, including once in the end zone, but both passes fell incomplete.Edwards played only sparingly after the first quarter.
"Looking back, it's really frustrating," Smith said. "Guys are frustrated. Guys want the ball. Guys want to score." Said Harbaugh: "We look forward to seeing how our team responds to some adversity. We haven't had a lot of it this year."
-- Matt Barrows