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SAN FRANCISCO — Jim Harbaugh hasn't built a champion yet, but he has officially built a winner. The 49ers downed the hapless Arizona Cardinals 23-7 at Candlestick Park on Sunday, improving to 9-1 and ensuring their first winning season since 2002.

The Niners weren't at their most efficient. Alex Smith was less accurate than we've seen him in a while, and San Francisco was awful in the red zone in the first half, attempting six field goals and missing three.

"There is definitely going to be some areas to improve off of today," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It wasn't as clean as it should have been, as you point out. You like to get touchdowns, you'd like to make those field goals and that operation to be flawless. We'll keep chasing perfection in terms of finishing off drives."

The home team didn't need perfection against Arizona, because the gulf in talent was just too great, especially with the Cardinals missing starters like quarterback Kevin Kolb, tight end Todd Heap, linebacker Joey Porter and safety Kerry Rhodes, all of them out with injuries.

The 49ers have four games remaining against NFC West opponents — one more versus Arizona and Seattle, two against St. Louis — and it's getting increasingly difficult to imagine them losing one. And it might soon be academic, anyway. If San Francisco wins at Baltimore on Thanksgiving Day and the Seahawks lose at home to Washington next Sunday, the Niners will clinch the division title — another thing that hasn't happened since '02.

At halftime, it was still very much a game. Not a good game, but a game.

The 49ers got the ball six times in the first half, and wound up in Arizona territory every time. But they stalled continually. David Akers hit field goals of 22, 43 and 29 yards, but he had two kicks blocked and missed another wide right.

Leading 9-0, the Niners blew open the game in the third quarter. They took the second-half kickoff and drove 84 yards in 13 plays, converting one fourth-down play and consuming more than half of the quarter before finishing on Smith's 8-yard touchdown throw to Kyle Williams.

On the Cardinals' second play after that, quarterback John Skelton overthrew Larry Fitzgerald down the middle of the field, and safety Donte Whitner picked it off. Whitner returned the ball 48 yards, to the Arizona 37, and it took the Niners just four plays to score on Smith's perfect fade pass to tight end Vernon Davis in the sun-drenched right side of the end zone.

That made the score 23-0, and though the Cardinals fought back to avoid the shutout on third-stringer Richard Bartel's touchdown throw to Fitzgerald that glanced off Carlos Rogers' hand, the fourth quarter was little more than long, slow run-off of time.

Even the Cardinals wound up impressed.

"It's hard for me to sit here and not admit they are a good football team," Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "There is a reason they are 9-1, a reason why they are the top of standing in the division. I usually don't give credit to anyone, especially in the division, but I give credit to them."

Skelton had engineered wins over Baltimore and St. Louis, sparking suggestions that he should retain the starting job when Kolb returns. He was horrendous against the 49ers, completing 6 of 19 passes for 99 yards and three picks. Arizona had just 11 first downs and 229 total yards, and much of it came in the meaningless fourth quarter. The Cardinals didn't take a snap in San Francisco territory until the 3:09 mark of the third quarter.

Smith fared far better than Skelton, but he regressed a little, missing several receivers high and throwing an interception in the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. He wound up completing 20 of 38 passes for 267 yards.

As always, the 49ers took much more than they gave. They came into the game plus-13 in turnover differential, the best mark in the NFL, and are now at plus-17. Whitner had a fumble recovery along with his interception Sunday, NaVorro Bowman grabbed a fumble on punt coverage, and linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson also picked off passes.

There is no rest for the victorious, though. The 49ers have just two days of work in Santa Clara this week. They fly to Baltimore on Wednesday, and face the Ravens — coached by older brother John Harbaugh, of course — on Thursday.

Jim Harbaugh normally tells his players they have six hours to enjoy a victory before mentally refocusing on the next game.

"We told the fellas we'll cut that to three," Harbaugh said. "Coaches will be even less. We'll go home and get a bite to eat with the family, maybe two hours. Then go into the building and start working on Baltimore."

It's a tough life, but you can't argue with the methods of a coach when his team is riding an eight-game winning streak and is lining itself up for a home playoff game.

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