SANTA CLARA — Colt McCoy.
Colt Freakin’ McCoy.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray might be on the short list of NFL MVP candidates through the first half of the season, but it was McCoy who sliced and diced the 49ers’ defense on Sunday like a Hall of Famer.
And that might be all you need to know about the San Francisco 49ers of 2021.
McCoy completed 22 of 26 pass attempts for 249 yards of error-free football in leading the Cardinals to a 31-17 victory over the hapless 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers looked like a lower-tier NFL team on Sunday, which should not come as a complete surprise.
After all, the 49ers have lost four of their past five games and, more often than not, have looked ridiculously bad.
The 49ers have not won a game at Levi’s Stadium since Oct. 18, 2020, against the Los Angeles Rams. The club has lost five consecutive home games. (The 49ers played their final three scheduled home games last season at the Cardinals’ home stadium in Glendale, Ariz.)
The 49ers had a chance to gain some ground in the NFC playoff picture, but failed miserably.
The four teams that entered Sunday directly ahead of San Francisco in the conference standings — New Orleans, Carolina, Minnesota — all lost in the early games.
The loss drops the 49ers to 3-5 on the season with a Week 10 game looming against the Los Angeles Rams.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s game:
Same old problems
The Cardinals improved to 8-1 despite playing without four of their biggest-name players, but it made little difference.
Murray was out with an ankle injury, replaced by journeyman McCoy.
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was sidelined with a hamstring injury. A.J. Green was not available while he remains on the reserve-COVID-19 list.
In addition, defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who played a huge role in the Cardinals’ Week 5 win over the 49ers, was placed on injured reserve this weekend and is likely out for the season due to a shoulder injury.
Still, the 49ers stumbled and staggered from the beginning of Sunday’s critical game.
In a victory over the Chicago Bears a week ago, the 49ers did not commit a turnover, punt or get sacked.
But in the team’s first four possessions, they lost two fumbles (George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk), punted twice and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sacked twice for minus-10 yards.
The 49ers fell behind 17-0, before they went on a nine-play, 75-yard drive to end the first half.
Garoppolo found Kittle for a 6-yard touchdown pass. It was Kittle’s first touchdown of the season, and it pulled the 49ers to within 17-7 at halftime.
But all momentum the 49ers might have achieved to end the first half was erased within the first 87 seconds of the third quarter when the Cardinals struck quickly to extend their lead.
Oft-penalized Josh Norman benched
Veteran cornerback Josh Norman took a good situation for the 49ers and made it a lot worse in the second quarter. His lack of discipline got him benched.
The 49ers made a stop for a 2-yard loss on a third-and-18 play. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury ran onto the field, upset that a penalty was not called. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The penalty would have set up a fourth-and-35 and a possible 54-yard field-goal attempt.
Instead, Norman began taunting Kingsbury and drew a penalty. The flag gave the Cardinals a first down and the Cardinals ultimately scored on Matt Prater’s short field goal.
Norman was benched immediately after he was penalized. Veteran cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick replaced Norman at right cornerback.
It was the seventh penalty called on Norman in his six games this season.
Kirkpatrick did not exactly prove to be an upgrade.
49ers defense gets trucked
The Cardinals’ offense absolutely manhandled the 49ers.
Conner ran over, around and through the 49ers en route to a career-best three touchdowns. He had two rushing scores and one on a 45-yard reception from McCoy.
Conner finished with 96 yards on 21 carries, while backup running back Eno Benjamin added 39 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts. Connor also had five receptions for 77 yards.
The 49ers missed a ton of tackles. Some of their whiffs were big ones, including from cornerback Emmanuel Moseley on Conner’s game-opening 13-yard touchdown run.
Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair came up empty on a third-and-18 play on which Conner turned a short pass into a 21-yard gain. Instead of being forced to punt, the Cardinals ended up driving for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Benjamin supplied an exclamation mark when he ran over Dre Kirkpatrick and did not slow down en route to a 21-yard touchdown run, which gave Arizona a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.
That play came after Al-Shaair looked to stop McCoy on a fourth-down sneak. But McCoy kept fighting, spun and picked up the first down.