SANTA CLARA – The first-quarter woes continued for the 49ers.
And things did not get much better for the team in the second, third and most of the fourth quarters, either.
The 49ers picked up Sunday where they left off in Cleveland a week earlier with their worst home performance of the season. And the Cincinnati Bengals, playing with backup quarterback AJ McCarron, got out to a big lead and then held on for a 24-14 victory at Levi’s Stadium.
The Bengals (11-3) strengthened their hold on the AFC North lead, while the 49ers (4-10) clinched last place in the NFC West for the first time since the 2005 season.
The Rams (6-8) lead the 49ers by two games for third place in the NFC West with two games to play. But the 49ers are locked into last place because the Rams are assured of having a better division record. After head-to-head, division record is the first tie-breaker. The Rams, who won the first meeting between the teams, close out the regular season on Jan. 3 at Levi’s Stadium.
Jim Tomsula’s 49ers certainly looked the part of a last-place team for most of Sunday, as the league’s worst offense continued to sputter from the beginning of the game.
The 49ers have not scored a touchdown in the first quarter of any of their 14 games this season. Their entire first-quarter scoring ledger consists of six field goals for an average of just 1.286 points per game in the opening 15 minutes of its games this season.
The offense was unable to get much going. But, worse, that unit also was working against the team’s defense. In fact, the 49ers’ pass targets did a lot more harm than good in the first half.
Tight end Vance McDonald, a second-round draft pick in 2013, had two perfectly thrown Blaine Gabbert passes clank off his hands and into the air for easy interceptions.
McDonald’s first misplay would have given the first-down starved 49ers a new set of downs inside the Cincinnati 25-yard line. Instead, cornerback Adam Jones grabbed the ball out of the air for the 49ers’ first turnover of the game.
Late in the second quarter, Gabbert again put a well-thrown ball right onto McDonald. But McDonald failed to secure the easy catch, bumbling it right to linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who returned it 16 yards to the 49ers’ 20-yard line.
On the next play, McCarron hit a wide-open Tyler Kroft for a 20-yard touchdown to give the Bengals a 21-0 lead.
Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin was also to blame for one of the mistakes that virtually hand-delivered the Bengals their first points of the game after nearly 25 minutes of scoreless football.
Boldin caught a 12-yard pass on a third-and-10 situation, but Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap ran with Boldin and stripped him of the ball upon making the tackle. Dunlap gained control of the ball and returned it 21 yards to the 49ers’ 11-yard line.
Five plays later, Jeremy Hill scored on a 1-yard touchdown run.
Gabbert had his worst statistical line for the 49ers in his six starts after taking over for Colin Kaepernick. Gabbert completed 30 of 50 passes for 295 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
McCarron made his first NFL start in place of Andy Dalton, who is expected to be out for at least the remainder of the regular season with a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. McCarron completed 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
The 49ers actually outgained the Bengals in total yardage in the game. The 49ers, who came into the game averaging a league-low 289.4 yards per game, had 318 yards of total offense. The Bengals’ offense gained just 242 yards. But the 49ers also committed 11 penalties for 98 yards.
The 49ers’ scoring draught lasted until late in the third quarter after the Bengals held a 24-0 lead.
Nose tackle Ian Williams recovered a fumble deep in Cincinnati territory. Five plays later, fullback Bruce Miller scored his first career rushing touchdown on a 1-yard run.
Gabbert hit Boldin on a 15-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Tomsula opted to kick extra points after the 49ers’ first two touchdowns. After the 49ers recovered an onside kick, Cincinnati safety Shawn Williams picked off Gabbert at the goal line.
Draughn sidelined: Shaun Draughn became the fourth 49ers running back sidelined with an injury this season when he left the game in the first half with a knee injury. Draughn gained 38 yards on nine rushing attempts and caught one pass for four yards in Sunday’s game.
Travaris Cadet replaced Draughn in the 49ers’ lineup. Kendall Gaskins also saw limited playing time in the second half. He caught six passes for 52 yards.
Rookie running back Mike Davis is eligible to return from a fractured left hand after missing six weeks after being placed on injured reserve/designated for return. Carlos Hyde (foot fracture) and Reggie Bush (torn knee cartilage) have already been placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Challenging challenges: Tomsula saw his streak of unsuccessful replay challenges come to an end late in the game when he challenged the ruling on an onside kick. Official Ronald Torbert determined Nick Bellore recovered the loose ball.
Up to that point, Tomsula was one of only three NFL coaches to lose all of his replay challenges this season. Tomsula was 0-for-6 before the late call was overturned.
Tomsula unsuccessfully challenged McCarron’s 19-yard pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones in the second quarter. Jones clearly had his hands underneath the pass. Four plays later, the Bengals scored on Hill’s second 1-yard run of the first half.
The only other coaches to lose all their challenges this season are Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano (0-for 5) and San Diego’s Mike McCoy (0-for-1).
Meanwhile, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis’ second-quarter challenge resulted in the first points of the game. Hill was ruled down short of the goal line on a second-and-goal play from the 1-yard line. After review, it was determined the ball broke the plane of the goal line, and the Bengals took a 7-0 lead.
Carradine makes start: Tank Carradine, the 49ers’ disappointing second-round draft pick from 2013, made his first career start with Aaron Lynch missing his second straight game due to a concussion.
Carradine lined up left defensive end in the 49ers’ nickel defense because the Bengals opened the game with three wide receivers. On base downs, Corey Lemonier saw most of the action at outside linebacker in place of Lynch.
Lynch sustained a concussion Dec. 6 against the Chicago Bears and has not received medical clearance to return to action. He leads the 49ers with 6 ½ sacks.
This ‘n’ that: Kicker Phil Dawson’s streak of 19 consecutive made field goals came to an end when Dunlap blocked his fourth-quarter attempt from 41 yards. Dawson’s first attempt of the season – and his only other miss – was also blocked. . . Inside linebacker Gerald Hodges, in his second start due to Michael Wilhoite’s ankle sprain, made two big plays on third downs in the first quarter. He chased down McCarron short of the sticks to end the Bengals’ first series. Then, he got penetration on a fourth-and-1 play, allowing NaVorro Bowman to swoop in and tackle Giovani Bernard for a 1-yard loss at the 49ers’ 28-yard line. . . Guard Alex Boone did not suit up due to a knee sprain. The 49ers moved Andrew Tiller from the right side to left guard to take his place. Marcus Martin started at right guard, and Daniel Kilgore made his first start of the season at center. Kilgore started the first seven games of 2014 before sustaining a fractured lower leg that kept him out of action for more than a year. . . Martin left the game early in the fourth quarter to undergo evaluation for a possible concussion. Right tackle Erik Pears moved to right guard and rookie Trent Brown took over at right tackle. . . Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who saw limited practice time last week due to back spasms and a toe injury, was active and kept his consecutive-games-played streak going at 78. Smith has not missed a game in his five-year NFL career.