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49ers' leaders show the way in 32-20 win over Cardinals

  • San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) catches a 35-yard touchdown over Arizona Cardinals strong safety Yeremiah Bell. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO — Depleted along the defensive line and locked in a game that turned out to be much tighter than a lot of fans had hoped, the 49ers relied on some old standbys to save them — guys who were established here well before Jim Harbaugh showed up to rekindle the glory years.

Tight end Vernon Davis put up dizzying numbers in the first half, linebacker Patrick Willis returned from an injury to force a key fumble and halfback Frank Gore carried the load on a decisive second-half drive as the 49ers pulled away from the Arizona Cardinals and won 32-20 at Candlestick Park on Sunday.

“He's our leader on defense,” strong safety Donte Whitner said of Willis, who missed two games with a groin injury. “Whenever you have your leader on defense back, good things happen.”

San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals

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The same could be said of Davis and Gore on offense, and all three of them — plus a number of their less-decorated teammates — were needed in a game that went into the fourth quarter with the Niners clinging to a tenuous 22-20 lead.

In fact, the Cardinals were driving for the lead late in the third quarter when Willis forced a fumble by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a pass completion.

Willis said after the game that every Thursday at the 49ers' practice facility in Santa Clara is Takeaway Thursday, when secondary coach Ed Donatell points out the opposing players who don't always practice ball security. Fitzgerald is one of the most sure-handed receivers in the game when it comes to catching passes, but the Niners noticed that he sometimes carries the ball loosely.

So Willis slapped it out of his hands, and rookie safety Eric Reid recovered at the San Francisco 11.

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