SANTA CLARA – Nothing is coming easy for the 49ers, who mostly breezed through the first seven games of the season.
But the Arizona Cardinals proved a determined and worthy opponent over the past three weeks.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo beat an all-out blitz with a pass to running back Jeff Wilson for a 25-yard touchdown to provide the 49ers with the winning points on Sunday with just 31 seconds remaining.
The play capped an amazing back-and-and forth game, in which the 49ers maintain a one-game lead in the NFC West with a 36-26 victory at Levi's Stadium.
The 49ers scored on the final play of the game when D.J. Reed had a fumble return for a touchdown as the Cardinals tried a desperation play.
The 49ers improve to 9-1, while the Seattle Seahawks are in second place at 8-2.
And nothing will be easy the rest of the way for the 49ers, either, with games upcoming against Green Bay, at Baltimore, at New Orleans in the next three weeks.
The 49ers escaped Arizona with a 28-25 victory on Halloween night in Week 9, before dropping another three-point decision, 27-24, to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime last week.
Here are three things you need to know about the 49ers in Week 11:
Garoppolo’s two big picks
Jimmy Garoppolo threw for a bunch of yards on Sunday. He had two pivotal passes end up in the hands of Cardinals defenders, but he came through when the 49ers needed it most in the closing minute.
The 49ers had the ball in prime scoring territory and Garroppolo’s two mistakes were costly as they tried to rally from a 16-point deficit in the first half.
In the third quarter, Garoppolo simply did not see linebacker Jordan Hicks as he tried to get the ball to Emmanuel Sanders. Hicks intercepted the ball and returned it 48 yards.
In the fourth quarter, Garoppolo was again intercepted inside the Cardinals 10-yard line. Garoppolo threw behind tight end Ross Dwelley, who got one hand on it. Safety Jalen Thompson made the diving interception to end the scoring threat with Arizona leading 26-23.
Garoppolo hit Wilson out of the backfield for a 25-yard touchdown to cap an eight-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to win the game.
Garoppolo completed 34 of 45 passes for a career-best 424 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 115.4.
Cardinals offense is vexing
Kliff Kingsbury has found a confounding combination of elements for his offense to challenge the 49ers’ defense like they have not be challenged this season.
For the second time in three weeks, the Cardinals’ offense proved difficult for the 49ers to handle. They had success running ball, both from running back Kenyan Drake and quarterback Kyler Murray on keepers.
Arizona also neutralized the 49ers’ pass rush with a variety of screens and quick-hitting passes. The Cardinals had so much success, again, against the 49ers that they should be prepared to see much more of that formula in the coming weeks.
With a steady diet of runs out of the shotgun formation, Drake and Murray gained 67 yards apiece. Murray completed 24 of 33 passes for 150 yards with two TDs and no interceptions.
The 49ers preserved the victory when newly signed Damontre Moore stripped Cardinals receiver KeeSean Johnson of the ball and safety Jaquiski Tartt recovered.
Searching for offensive answers
The 49ers’ offense got off to a slow start, as they are still trying to figure out how to proceed without tight end George Kittle.
In their first three possessions, the 49ers managed only one first down – and that came when Patrick Peterson was called for a 28-yard penalty for pass interference.
The 49ers needed a big play, and they got it when Richie James turned a wide receiver screen into a 57-yard pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers cashed that in on Garoppolo’s 4-yard pass to tight end Ross Dwelley to cut into the Cardinals’ 16-0 lead.
Dwelley caught another touchdown pass – and also had one wiped out due to penalty – as he started for the sixth consecutive week. Dwelley started four games while fullback Kyle Juszczyk was sidelined with a knee injury.
Emmanuel Sanders was banged up with a ribs injury, but rookie receiver Deebo Samuel came through with eight receptions for 134 yards.
The 49ers had no success with the run game, as Tevin Coleman had just 14 yards on 12 carries, Raheem Mostert had 13 yards on six attempts.