Ben Margot, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — Any playoff talk this summer about the San Francisco 49ers seemed almost laughable considering the franchise hadn't even had a winning record in almost a decade.
Now the toughest part for the 49ers might be keeping all the chatter at a whisper.
Alex Smith threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns and San Francisco forced five turnovers to blow past the Arizona Cardinals 23-7, moving oh-so close to clinching the NFC West in near record-setting fashion.
"We played tough, we were strong and we stood up to the Arizona Cardinals from the beginning," tight end Vernon Davis said. "But it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
That will be San Francisco's mantra the rest of the way.
Smith tossed scores to Kyle Williams and Davis on the first two drives of the third quarter to help the 49ers pull away for their eighth straight victory. San Francisco (9-1) could wrap up the NFC West with a win at Baltimore on Thursday and a loss by Seattle against Washington next weekend.
The earliest team to clinch a division was the 1985 Chicago Bears in Week 11, according to STATS LLC. Three others have clinched in 11 games.
Now the 49ers, without a playoff appearance or winning record since 2002, can join them and push forward to bigger prizes.
"You come to the point where you just can't always concede the last shove, there's always going to give you the final shove," first-year 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You can't do it that way, you can't play it that way."
San Francisco plans to play hard until the end.
Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis and Dashon Goldson all intercepted passes by John Skelton. The quarterback for the Cardinals (3-7) lost for the first time in three starts this season in place of the injured Kevin Kolb.
The conditions turned out to be just perfect for San Francisco's style.
With a chilly rainstorm pelting the Bay Area since Saturday, the 49ers defense bullied and bruised Arizona all over a slick field. The Cardinals converted only two first downs in the first half and didn't make it past midfield until late in the third quarter.
"Their thing is keep the game close, don't give up no big touchdowns and then get three points and three points, maybe get a score," Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said "And that's how they win the game."
Once the rain subsided and a rainbow formed in the north sky above Candlestick, the 49ers finally opened up an otherwise passive passing game.
Smith connected with Williams on a route to the near pylon in the third quarter. Williams stretched over the goal line as he was tackled to complete the 8-yard TD catch.
After Skelton sailed a pass that Whitner stood under for an easy interception, Smith rallied San Francisco for another quick score.
He found Davis for an 18-yard touchdown to put San Francisco ahead 23-0. The tight end leaped over sideline cameramen and flexed his muscles to a rain-soaked crowd covered in ponchos and umbrellas in celebration.
Far too much for Arizona's anemic offense to overcome.
Skelton had won the previous two games against St. Louis and Philadelphia since replacing Kolb, who's out with a right foot and toe injury. Skelton was 6 of 19 for 99 yards and was benched after throwing his third interception in place of third-string quarterback Richard Bartel to start the fourth.
So much for that budding quarterback controversy.
Even Bartel's only highlight came on a shaky pass between two defenders that landed in Fitzgerald's hands for a 23-yard touchdown for Arizona's lone score. The Cardinals dropped their fifth straight to the 49ers.
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