SAN FRANCISCO -- An 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive served as the 49ers' masterpiece Sunday, for it displayed the collective effort needed to put away a tough division rival and secure a three-game win streak.

First downs didn't come easily on that 91/2-minute haul, nor did any part of the 32-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park.

But on the 18th play, once Kendall Hunter crossed the goal line with a 6-yard run, the 49ers no longer had to nurse a two-point lead. Instead, they bathed in a 29-20 advantage with only 6:35 remaining.

"We grinded some meat," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The game could have gone different ways. Our players really toughed it out when they had to."

With a third straight win -- a feat they failed to pull off last regular season -- the 49ers (4-2) stayed a game behind NFC West leader Seattle (5-1). The Cardinals (3-3) fell into a third-place tie with the St. Louis Rams.

Heroes were plentiful, and not just on the 49ers' final touchdown drive. Tight end Vernon Davis matched his career high of 180 receiving yards (achieved in the January 2012 playoff game against New Orleans), with 171 yards and two touchdowns coming before halftime. For the second straight game, the 49ers defense forced four turnovers.

The Cardinals' third turnover was the biggest: Patrick Willis stripped Larry Fitzgerald after a reception and Eric Reid recovered at the 49ers' 11-yard line, setting up the NFL's longest drive of the season, at least in terms of the 18 snaps.


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Keeping that series alive were three third-down conversions (a 6-yard catch by Anquan Boldin, a 14-yard grab by Kyle Williams, a 2-yard run by Frank Gore) and a fourth-and-1 conversion run by fullback Bruce Miller, who thanked offensive coordinator Greg Roman for the rare opportunity.

"The first thing I thought of was, 'Why is Frank not getting the football here?' " Miller said. "It was cool that G-Ro had faith in me. ... I knew exactly where I was going: right behind Mike Iupati."

Iupati, the powerful left guard, injured his right shoulder carving a path for Miller to reach the Cardinals' 34. Iupati came out briefly but returned to help Hunter reach pay dirt. The drive's final eight plays were runs.

"We let them run the same play on us I think 10 times in a row, and we couldn't stop it," Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu said.

Harbaugh couldn't stop beaming about the 49ers' "pounding it" and "grinding the meat" method in clutch time. Left tackle Joe Staley added: "Grinding some meat is just a blue-collar job, and that's what we were doing out there."

That drive initially got saved not by runs but by third-down completions from Colin Kaepernick to Boldin and then Williams.

"The whole game it seemed we were right there and not finishing," Williams said. "To finish that one was something we needed. For it to be as long and as physical, it was good for us."

Two snaps after Hunter's touchdown, the Cardinals coughed up the ball again on a fumble forced by rookie Corey Lemonier, who earlier sacked Carson Palmer for a second-quarter safety.

That turnover resulted in a Phil Dawson field goal, as did first-quarter interceptions by Reid and Carlos Rogers that helped the 49ers take a 6-0 lead.

Two snaps after Lemonier's safety, Kaepernick found Davis for a 61-yard touchdown strike and a 15-7 lead. When Kaepernick and Davis hooked up for a 35-yard score, the 49ers had a 22-14 lead they'd take into halftime.

"We knew he'd be a mismatch. (Davis) always is," said Kaepernick, who finished 16 of 29 for 252 yards, two touchdowns and an interception inside the Cardinals 1-yard line on a tipped pass.

The Cardinals pulled within 22-20 on Palmer's 10-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd over Tarell Brown with 8:12 left in the third quarter. A two-point conversion attempt followed, and Patrick Peterson's option pass failed.

"It was beautiful, but we can't stop here," Davis said of the win. "We have to keep ascending."

The 49ers literally will be taking flight next: They play at Tennessee next Sunday before flying directly to London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 27. After a bye week, the 49ers will host the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 10.

That should give Candlestick Park's turf enough time to recover from Sunday's meat-and-greet.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.

SUNDAY'S GAME
49ers (4-2) at Tennessee (3-3), 1:05 p.m. FOX

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INSIDE
  • Willis not at his best
    in return but forces crucial fumble by
    Fitzgerald. PAGE 4
  • Kaepernick keeps poise after rocky start. PAGE 4
  • Purdy: 49ers' Reid
    (below) outperforms his more heralded college
    teammate. PAGE 5