SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - Mike Singletary challenged his San Francisco 49ers to come together and play their best football on the big stage Monday night.
He asked his players to be aggressive and physical, to create turnovers and wreak havoc on quarterback Kurt Warner. The 49ers forced seven turnovers in a dominant 24-9 victory over Arizona, keeping their slim playoff chances alive while denying the Cardinals a chance to clinch a second straight NFC West crown.
"It's all we can ask for at this point to just continue to be in the hunt," quarterback Alex Smith said. "I don't know what the math is. It doesn't matter at this point. We have to win."
While Singletary insists he isn't doing any math yet either - "I'm not smart enough," the coach says - he knows if San Francisco (6-7) wins out over the final three games and gets some help, his team might just sneak into the playoffs. Ending a franchise-worst streak of six straight losing seasons would be a big boost for this team heading into the offseason, too.
On Tuesday, Singletary gave his players the day off before beginning preparations in earnest going into another tough one: Sunday's game at NFC East-leading Philadelphia.
"Once again, in all honesty, all I know is if we win out we have a chance," Singletary said Tuesday. "Maybe a smaller chance, but we have a chance. I don't even really care about the other stuff, the tiebreakers, if this ... I don't really get into that. I'm not smart enough. But I just know that if we win out, we just have to sit back and let's see what happens."
While Singletary said he arrived at team headquarters after 8 a.m. for a later start than his usual 6:30 a.m. film sessions following game day, he liked what he saw on tape.
San Francisco forced a franchise-best five fumbles against Arizona and also had two interceptions of passes by Warner, making sure the Cardinals didn't mount a comeback. The 49ers led 17-0 at halftime and kept the pressure on in the second half.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks had a breakout game with three sacks and two forced fumbles after playing sparingly until this point, safety Dashon Goldson forced two more fumbles and had a pick. Linebacker Patrick Willis was his usual productive self with nine solo tackles, a forced fumble and a sack. And safety Mark Roman recovered two fumbles and forced one in the Niners' first game with seven takeaways since getting eight against New Orleans on Sept. 14, 1997.
"That's our defense. They come to play," running back Frank Gore said.
So did Gore. Gore gained 167 yards on 25 carries with a touchdown in his best game since Week 2 and third 100-yard effort of the season. The performance earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Singletary recently called Gore into his office and asked the running back to be patient because his opportunities would come again soon. The 49ers have largely been a passing team lately with Smith leading the way, which has led to fewer chances for Gore.
Against the Cardinals, Gore grinded out yards against a defense that held Minnesota star Adrian Peterson to a season-low 19 yards the previous game.
"It was good to see him smiling about contributing the way he did," Singletary said. "I was pleased to see our offense really strike a balance. At the beginning of the season, we were a more run-oriented offense, and here as of late, we've evolved more into a passing offense. I think last night, for the first time, we really struck a nice balance with the run and pass."
This kind of game could provide some momentum for a team heading into a hostile environment Sunday. The Niners sure could use it. They have lost five straight road games since winning at Arizona in their season opener back on Sept. 13, and by a total of 19 points.
"We played relentless," cornerback Dre' Bly said. "We understand we let some games slip in the middle of the season. We don't control our own destiny. All we can do is win. If we win, we'll give ourselves the best opportunity. That's all we can control."
Singletary still wasn't sure whether left tackle Joe Staley would return Sunday. Staley worked out on the field before Monday night's game at Candlestick Park as he recovers from a sprained right knee that he injured Nov. 1 at Indianapolis. Considering his replacement, Barry Sims, hurt his knee Monday, that could push Staley's return. Sims was scheduled for an MRI exam to determine the source of his pain.