SAN FRANCISCO &
Alex Smith walked into the huddle with the San Francisco 49ers trailing Arizona with less than — minutes remaining and saw a confidence in his teammates that belied the 57 minutes of offensive ineptitude the team had endured.
A team that had gained only 109 yards up until that point needed to go 86 for the winning score.
"A year ago, two years ago, that huddle would have been in the tank," Smith said. "You would have been in that huddle and guys would have been hoping that we would win, but I'm not sure they would have believed it. Tonight you could see it."
Smith overcame an otherwise poor night to engineer a game-winning drive capped by Arnaz Battle's 1-yard end-around with 22 seconds left, giving the 49ers a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.
On a night when the field here was officially renamed in Bill Walsh's honor, that drive was the only one worthy of one of the game's greatest offensive minds.
Anquan Boldin caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Leinart with 6:40 to play for the Cardinals, who kept the 49ers out of the end zone for 55 straight minutes between Frank Gore's early score and Battle's final TD.
"Offensively, we saved our best for last, which is the best thing I can say for us," San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said.
Smith was remarkably efficient on the final drive, starting it with four straight completions, scrambling 25 yards on fourth-and-1 and then threaded a perfect 22-yard pass to Battle on third-and-13 from the 23.
That play nearly ended in disaster for the Niners when Battle had the ball knocked out his hands by Terrence Holt as he stretched for the end zone. But Darrell Jackson dove on the ball in the end zone after Eric Green misplayed it and San Francisco was given the ball on the — because a fumble can't be advanced in the final 2 minutes.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt remained mystified by the rulings, arguing that Battle didn't hold onto the ball long enough for a catch. Whisenhunt became the ninth straight Cardinals coach to lose his first game with the team.
"I asked them, and they said they thought it was a catch," Whisenhunt said. "I went to the official and asked him, are they going to review it? He said they came back and said it was a catch. I didn't see it. I saw it on the screen. The only thing I saw was the ball coming out."
Battle, who promised a steak dinner to Jackson for recovering the fumble, scored on the next play when Nolan called for a run even though he had no timeouts remaining.
"They gave me the opportunity to redeem myself and I'm thankful for that," Battle said.
For the Cardinals, it was another heartbreaking loss on a Monday night. The last time they appeared on this national stage, they blew a 20-0 halftime lead to the Chicago Bears, allowing three returns for touchdowns in the second half of a 24-23 loss last Oct. 16.
This loss wasn't as dramatic but it still hurt as an offense that was supposed to be high-powered struggled to move the ball. Edgerrin James rushed for 92 yards and a score, and Leinart was 14-of-28 for 102 yards with two interceptions, including one by Shantae Spencer with 8 seconds left that sealed the game.
"I have to come back and get better as a player, keep studying harder," Leinart said. "We're not going to win football games if I play like that at quarterback. That's something that I'm hard on myself but I have to keep my head up and keep moving forward."
Smith wasn't any better than Leinart until the finish. He finished 15-of-31 for 126 yards, with 60 of the yards coming on the last drive.
"The win is the most important thing, ugly or not," Smith said. "I think we (showed) character to really hang in there and know we were going to get it done."
Notes: San Francisco RB Frank Gore ran for 55 yards and an early score after sitting out the entire preseason to heal his broken right hand. ... The 49ers honored Walsh, who died of leukemia on July 30, with a halftime tribute that included a short film. The club unveiled a plaque in Walsh's memory, and the coach's initials were added to the ring of honor on Candlestick Park's facade. ... Arizona lost new C Al Johnson to a left knee injury in the opening minute of the second half, forcing undrafted rookie Lyle Sendlein into action.
49ers overcome 57 minutes of ineptitude to beat Cardinals
SAN FRANCISCO &