GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP)—The new stadium was packed and rocking for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
The NFL’s long-suffering franchise finally has a home—a palace is more like it—and the Cardinals christened the place with a 34-27 season-opening victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The performance was no thing of beauty, but for a team that hadn’t opened at home since moving to Arizona in 1988, just a victory was good enough.
Cardinals coach Dennis Green gave the game ball to team owner Bill Bidwill.
“I told him it was the first of many wins in a building everybody is real proud of,” Green said.
Kurt Warner completed 23 of 37 passes for 301 yards and three scores, the Cardinals turned two first-quarter San Francisco turnovers into touchdowns, and Arizona held on to beat the 49ers 34-27 on Sunday.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 63,407 in their $455 million, air conditioned new stadium, Warner said the atmosphere brought him back to his time with the Rams in St. Louis.
“It was fun. It reminded me of the old days,” he said. “We’re building something new here, and I think it’s great to get a win the first time out.”
The sweaty afternoons of playing in a mostly empty, sun-scorched college stadium are over. Fans came to the team’s state-of-the-art building in the western suburbs of Phoenix hours before the game, setting up tents for tailgate parties in a new grassy park outside.
Beneath the stadium’s translucent roof, they filled the place with the kind of noise this franchise seldom heard.
“It feels really good,” Arizona cornerback Eric Green said, “compared to Sun Devil Stadium, where you’re out there and there’s 10,000 fans screaming for you and 20,000 screaming for the other team. It’s great to go out there on defense and throw your hands up to the point you can’t hear the guy next to you.”
The Cardinals jumped to a 21-7 lead, scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter for the first time in 31 years—then withstood a last-minute San Francisco rally for their first season-opening victory since 1999 and only the third since ’88.
Despite the loss, 49ers coach Mike Nolan saw positives.
“We haven’t arrived, but this is a great group of guys,” he said. “I have no doubts in my mind we’re on the right track. We’re certainly way ahead of where we were last year.”
Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 133 yards, including a crucial 28-yard reception on third-and-10 from the Arizona 37 late in the game. The play came on a 13-play, 68-yard drive that lasted seven minutes and ended with Neil Rackers’ 30-yard field goal that put the Cardinals ahead 34-24 with 1:50 remaining.
Joe Nedney, who missed a 34-yarder earlier, kicked a 44-yard field goal with 36 seconds left to cut the lead to 34-27. Marcus Hudson recovered the onside kick for San Francisco at the 49ers 39. Alex Smith threw 25 yards to Antonio Bryant, but two passes into the end zone fell incomplete as the game ended.
Edgerrin James had a decent debut for the Cardinals behind Arizona’s suspect line, gaining 73 yards in 26 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run.
“He helped us more than we helped him,” Green said, “so hopefully this week our line will help him more, and we’ll help him more with the calls, too. But he did a solid job, especially at the end when we had to close it out.”
James said “the game was closer than it should have been. We should have knocked those dudes out of the stadium.”
Frank Gore carried 16 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns, but fumbled to set up an Arizona touchdown. Smith, last year’s No. 1 draft pick who struggled as a rookie in 2005, completed 23 of 40 passes for 288 yards and one score.
The 49ers fooled the Cardinals with misdirection plays.
“There were some exciting things to see, glimpses of what we can do,” Smith said. “I think it shows a lot of character for this team to battle back. … I think I’ve come a long way. I was very anxious to wipe away all those memories of last year.”
The game was tied at 7 when Gore fumbled, then Arizona’s Gerald Hayes scooped up the ball and rambled 19 yards to the San Francisco 5. It took three tries, but James scored from the 1 for his first Cardinals touchdown.
After the ensuing kickoff, Davis fumbled and Darnell Dockett recovered at the 49ers 41. Warner’s 28-yard pass to Fitzgerald set up a 6-yard touchdown toss to Anquan Boldin and it was 21-7 with 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
Walt Harris sacked Warner, then recovered the Arizona quarterback’s fumble at the Cardinals 7 in the third quarter, setting up Gore’s 2-yard run to cut Arizona’s lead to 24-21 with 7:41 left in the third quarter.
But the Cardinals responded with a 10-play, 86-yard touchdown drive.
: 49ers offensive guard Larry Allen, a 10-time Pro Bowler, is doubtful for next week’s game after leaving early with a sprained right knee. … The Cardinals last scored three first-quarter touchdowns against the Jets on Dec. 23, 1975. … Arizona was penalized 11 times for 83 yards.