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Feisty Cardinals showing flashes of potential, but mistakes and talent deficit are hard to overcome

Arizona Cardinals running back Emari Demercado (31) runs for a touchdown in front of San Francisco 49ers safety Ji'Ayir Brown during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Arizona Cardinals running back Emari Demercado (31) runs for a touchdown in front of San Francisco 49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York

BY DAVID BRANDT contributing

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Cardinals proved they’re good enough to hang with one of the NFL’s best teams — at least for a while.

That might be faint praise, but this is a franchise that will take any good news it can get during a tough season.

The Cardinals (3-11) took an early lead Sunday and played well in the first half before the San Francisco 49ers eventually pulled away for a 45-29 win.

The 49ers are a juggernaut these days, winning six games in a row overall and 12 games straight against NFC West division rivals. The Cardinals would’ve had to have been nearly perfect to get the win and they were not — particularly in the second half.

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“It’s the NFL, it’s a big boy league,” coach Jonathan Gannon said. “You have to bring it every week. I think our guys do. From a coaching perspective, we have to help them out. Keep coaching the details, keep setting up good plans, keep coaching in practice every day.

“We’ll give it a go again next week.”

Arizona’s main problem against San Francisco was a tendency to give up big plays. Deebo Samuel scored a 12-yard touchdown on a wide-open catch in the first quarter. In the third quarter, Christian McCaffrey was so open he had time to catch a long pass, fall down, scramble to his feet and still score a 41-yard touchdown.

“We played a really good team today and they have a lot of talent across the board,” cornerback Antonio Hamilton said. “So we knew coming into the game that it was going to be a dogfight and the margin for error was (slim) to none. We made a few mistakes, we let a couple of guys get open.”

The Cardinals are 2-3 since starting quarterback Kyler Murray’s return from a knee injury that kept him out 11 months. Against the Niners, Murray completed 26 of 39 passes for 211 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, including one that was returned for a pick-6.

“We’ve just got to be better,” Murray said. “I’ve got to be better.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Cardinals rolled up 234 yards on the ground against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense, showing once again that they can find space to move against anyone. James Conner ran for 86 yards on 14 carries and rookie Emari Demercado had 64 yards on four carries. Arizona moved up to No. 7 in the league with 131.8 yards rushing per game.

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WHAT NEEDS HELP

Arizona isn’t get much production from receivers, instead relying on tight ends and running backs to move the ball in the passing game. Out of Murray’s 26 pass completions Sunday, only four were caught by receivers, and those gained a combined total of just 20 yards.

STOCK UP

Tight end Trey McBride isn’t a secret weapon for the Cardinals anymore, but he’s still producing. The second-year pro had 10 catches for 102 yards Sunday and has quickly become one of Murray’s favorite targets.

“He’s just getting better each and every week,” Murray said. “I say it every week: The more he plays, the more confident he gets, and the swag and the juice from him just continues to grow.”

STOCK DOWN

The Cardinals’ pass rush didn’t record a sack Sunday, allowing 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy ample time to throw. One of the few times Purdy was hit, linebacker Dennis Gardeck was also given a costly 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. Arizona has cobbled together a decent pass rush at times this season, but there have been no standouts. Gardeck leads the team with five sacks.

INJURIES

TE Geoff Swain (calf) and WR Marquise Brown (heel) both left Sunday’s game with injuries. Gannon wasn’t sure if either will be available for the next game, but didn’t expect either player to go on injured reserve.

KEY NUMBER

6-18 — That’s the Cardinals record at home over the past three seasons. They’re 12-12 on the road during the same stretch.

NEXT STEPS

The Cardinals are on the road the next few weeks, starting with the Chicago Bears next Sunday. Arizona did well in its latest cold weather game, beating the Steelers 24-10 on Dec. 3. Arizona has three games remaining and arguably the most interesting storyline for the franchise is where it will pick in the upcoming draft. The Cardinals have plenty of needs and a top-five pick would be useful.

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