Losing football teams will careen through topsy-turvy games, mixing the good plays with the bad, until they lose.
With winning teams, the reverse is true.
It’s probably the only truism I can trust over the years. The teams that win in the parity-driven NFL sidestep the minutiae – sun-in-your-eyes drops, below-average officiating, injuries, etc. – and focus on the day’s prize.
The Arizona Cardinals, the new front-runners in the NFC West, passed that test Sunday. They won’t sweat the fact they were extended to the max by the 3-849ers. That the same team they humiliated 47-7 in September nearly beat them in the rematch is a non-issue.
The scoreboard at Levi’s Stadium blinked Arizona 19, San Francisco 13. In the NFL, there is no other measuring stick. Everything else is Thanksgiving leftovers – tasty excess.
Gauging the 49ers’ progress is a lot like throwing sand in the air and guessing where the grains fall. Are they still regressing? Are they improving? Is their young talent growing? Does Owner Jed York still exist?
Who really knows? They play better at home, for sure, but almost all losing teams find comfort on familiar ground. The 49ers tackled better, fought harder and moved the ball better than in last week’s embarrassment at Seattle.
Blaine Gabbert, the former first-round draft pick, has taken advantage of his second chance. He makes NFL throws, and how he would perform with first-rate talent around him has become a valid question. For him, that’s a major step forward.
Gabbert’s rough-around-the-edges career also gives him a good vantage point on the big picture. His words after the game resonated more than the rest.
“At the end of the day, we lost, and we’re in a wins-and-losses business,” he said. “All you can ask for is the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win.”
He’s right. The 49ers could not have asked for a better chance to win. Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro bonked the right upright on the extra-point attempt after Carson Palmer’s touchdown scramble. A six-point deficit with 2:28 left is an open door to victory. Score the last-minute touchdown, trot out your marksman kicker, Phil Dawson, and celebrate a shocking NFL win.
Gabbert completed four straight passes and marched the 49ers to the Arizona 42-yard line. The Faithful were encouraged. They had seen enough dreadful football this season. The 49ers were not dreadful this day. They extended a superior opponent. Winning the game was a distinct possibility.
Until they didn’t.
Quinton Patton dropped a pass. Gabbert was sacked on third down, the exact wrong time, repeating an error on the game’s first series that cost the 49ers a possible field goal. Finally, on fourth-and-20, Gabbert completed a pass to Anquan Boldin for 18 yards. Two yards short. Game over.
The 49ers would be wise not to dwell on the officiating. Granted, Pete Morelli (Stockton) and his crew labored from start to finish. They couldn’t even get the down right during the first quarter.
“The officials were struggling mightily,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians cracked. “I mean, they can’t count to three.”
But the officials weren’t guilty of four penalties, all in the end zone, within seven snaps to gift-wrap Arizona’s first touchdown. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who’s played a few downs in this league, gets it.
“It goes back to controlling what you can control. I was in the zone so much that the calls weren’t really fazing me. That’s what we want to get to as a team,” Bowman said. “Don’t listen to the refs. I have yet to see a call changed after an argument has been presented. Save the energy.”
Here is the game’s essence: Arizona did not suffer a turnover. The 49ers had two, resulting in six Arizona points. Check the final score.
For all the math majors, we have more: The 49ers average 13.9 points per game, worst in the league. They almost hit their average to the decimal point.
And, one more time: The 49ers outgained Arizona 368-337 though they had the ball for 15 fewer minutes. This only happens to teams that lose.
The 49ers have other off-the-field problems. A plane circling Levi’s pulled a sign reading, “Jed and 49ers should mutually part ways.”
I doubt York sells because of a banner, but the sign reveals the fan base’s increasing outrage. Only about two-thirds of the seats were filled. His decisions, along with those of general manager Trent Baalke, have triggered the 49ers’ free fall from Super Bowl contender to bottom feeder.
Even when they play relatively well, they can’t overcome better talent or the predictable obstacles during a given Sunday. Good teams navigate the rough water.
The 49ers used to shake off the distractions and win. No more.
13 The penalties called on the 49ers, tying a season high