The San Francisco 49ers kept their slim hopes for a division title alive with a big road victory in their last outing. Now without their top wide receiver, they’ll try to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention when they host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
On Friday, San Francisco (6-8) lost Antonio Bryant after he was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Bryant, who signed a four-year, $15 million free-agent contract last summer, has 40 catches for a team-high 733 yards with three touchdowns.
Bryant was arrested on Nov. 19 and charged with reckless and drunken driving. He also was combative with police and needed to be restrained, but coach Mike Nolan would not say if the suspension was related to that arrest.
“He takes responsibility for it,” Nolan said of Bryant. “He was disappointed for a number of reasons. The first one was that he felt he let his team down at a crucial time. … He did not blame it on anyone else.”
Bryant’s suspension may have sapped any momentum the 49ers would have carried into this contest. San Francisco stunned Seattle by scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Seahawks 24-14 on Dec. 14.
The win gave the Niners a sweep of the season series and kept alive its chances for the NFC West title. If they win out and Seattle loses its final two games, San Francisco wins the division title.
The 49ers are also mathematically alive for a wild-card spot, but have a better chance of winning the division. A loss to the Cardinals (4-10), though, and next Sunday’s regular-season finale at Denver becomes meaningless for San Francisco.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible except for a wild fourth quarter at Seattle that helped the Niners end a three-game losing streak. San Francisco trailed 7-3 entering the quarter, but Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and ran for another to put the 49ers up 24-7.
“I think we always knew (we could beat Seattle),” Smith said. “I think that changed a couple of weeks ago when we beat them at our place.
“I think this team grew up a little bit tonight.”
Smith has grown up a lot from his rookie season, when he posted a passer rating of 40.8 and threw only one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in each of the last five games this year and his passer rating is 75.9, the largest increase of any quarterback who has at least 150 pass attempts the past two seasons.
“The boy just became a grown man today, baby,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said of his quarterback. “There’s a lot more to come.”
Gore has also been a big factor in the 49ers’ surprising success. Named to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday, Gore ranks third in the NFL with 1,491 rushing yards and needs only 80 more to become the franchise’s single-season leader, surpassing Garrison Hearst’s 1,570 in 1998.
Gore, who had a franchise-record 212 yards against Seattle on Nov. 19, has eight 100-yard games this year. He fumbled in each of the first four games, but has only one lost fumble in the last 10 contests.
“I know there was a lot of doubts out there about the decision that Coach Nolan made, putting me in as the starter,” Gore said. “I just told myself that I’d get an opportunity to show people that I can do the job in the NFL.”
San Francisco has won three division games for the first time since going 5-1 in 2002.
The Cardinals beat San Francisco 34-27 at home in this season’s opener, their third straight victory over the 49ers after losing 14 of the previous 17 in the series.
That season-opening win for Arizona was followed by eight straight losses, but the Cardinals have turned it around, winning three of their last five games.
They beat St. Louis 34-20 on the road Dec. 3 to snap a seven-game losing streak away from home, and will be looking to win back-to-back road games for the first time since defeating the Rams and San Francisco last November.
Despite their fifth straight season with at least 10 losses, the Cardinals put two players in the Pro Bowl—wide receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Adrian Wilson—and have shown improvement over the last five games.
“We have made some strides,” said Edgerrin James, who needs 12 yards to become the first Arizona running back since 1998 to run for 1,000 in a season. “We know we still have to keep working and keep getting better. You never get to the point where you’re dead. This team is not dead.”
Boldin has topped the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in four NFL seasons and joined Roy Green as the only other Cardinals receiver to have three 1,000-yard seasons. He has four 100-yard games in his last five meetings against San Francisco, while fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald has three straight 100-yard games against the 49ers.