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.

"Just the right time," Whitner said. "They're driving, the score was 22-20, they were approaching, if not in, our red zone. " .<TH>.<TH>. You never know what play is going to change the momentum of the game."

This one did, but only because of what happened next. There was 1:07 left in the third quarter when the 49ers got the ball. They had punted after minimal gains on their first two possessions after halftime. This time, they launched the sort of methodical drive that has been missing for much of the year. San Francisco converted three third-down plays and a fourth-down play and finished off the march on Kendall Hunter's 6-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 29-20.

The final numbers on the drive: 89 yards, 9 minutes and 32 seconds. It took 18 plays, making it the longest in the NFL this season.

Even more comforting for the 49ers, they ran the same play seven straight times to cover the final 31 yards of the possession. It's called 94 Power, and it involves the left guard pulling, and the halfback following him and the fullback, then cutting off of their blocks. The Cardinals were powerless to stop it.

Gore, a ninth-year veteran and possibly the most respected player on the team, had five of those carries for 22 yards. He finished with 101 rushing yards, 81 in the second half.

The 49ers didn't need Gore to go nuts in the first half. Davis was taking care of that.

The eighth-year tight end had established a career high for receiving yardage by halftime as he repeatedly got wide open in the Arizona secondary. Colin Kaepernick found him in stride on a 61-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave San Francisco a 15-7 lead. And Davis hauled in a deep lob from Kaepernick over safety Yeremiah Bell for another TD later in the quarter. In between, he made an acrobatic catch for a 28-yard gain.

"They committed an extra player to the box and went with man-to-man coverage and, at times, zero coverage, and that gave Vernon a chance to win and make the big play," Harbaugh said. "And those were great plays that he made, too."

None of them were really enough to allow the 49ers to separate, because their mistakes kept the Cardinals in the game.

Whitner and nickel cornerback Tramaine Brock both whiffed on a short pass to Fitzgerald, allowing the athletic receiver to turn it into a 75-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. The 49ers answered that with a long drive, but Bell intercepted Kaepernick's pass for fullback Bruce Miller — it was tipped by blitzing linebacker Karlos Dansby — at the Arizona 1. Late in the second quarter, with the Niners up 22-14, Kaepernick was stripped by Dansby and Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington recovered the fumble.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they got some big defensive plays early in the game.

<CS8.9>Two of the Cardinals' first four possessions ended in interceptions, not a rare occurrence for quarterback Carson Palmer, as Raiders fans can attest. Reid got the first and returned it 53 yards to the Arizona 7. Carlos Rogers got the second and set up his team at the opponent's 11. But the 49ers offense was unable to move the ball and settled for a pair of Phil Dawson field goals.

</CS>Perfect? No way, but the 49ers managed to move ahead of Arizona and stay one game behind Seattle in the NFC West, and sometimes that's plenty.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.</i>