GLENDALE, Ariz.

NO NEED FOR Mike Singletary to pull down his pants at halftime and flash his backside. No cause for dramatic gestures or emphatic messages that leave the new coach explaining and defending his actions.

Fifteen days after Singletary's provocative demonstrations made headlines around the globe, it appears the interim head coach has the collective ear of the 49ers.

The 49ers could not have played any harder, nor with any more heart, than they did in a pulsating, penalty-laden 29-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The 49ers seen by the national TV audience looked nothing like the hot mess of a squad last seen being humiliated in a 21-point loss to underdog Seattle on Oct. 26 at Candlestick Park. Those Niners didn't seem to know what they wanted, or where they were headed. They showed up, goofed up and eventually curled up into the fetal position.

These 49ers come to play, as if they believe in what they're doing.

They still haven't figured out how to pressure the quarterback and they still lack a game-changing receiver — though Jason Hill made a spirited bid over the course of the evening. And they still have Shaun Hill, methodical and functional at his best but hardly a game-breaker, at quarterback.

Shaun Hill played relatively well most of the way, lofting a gorgeous touchdown pass to Josh Morgan early in the second quarter and zipping a bullet on which Vernon Davis made a spectacular catch for a touchdown late in the quarter. It was all good stuff, exactly the kind of game management Singletary had requested.

Until the game was on the line.

Though the 49ers led from the start, after Allen Rossum's 104-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff, Hill's fumble allowed Arizona to cut the margin to 24-23 early in the fourth quarter. The first of two interceptions thrown by Hill in the final quarter led directly to Arizona's go-ahead touchdown.

But the San Francisco defense, playing against the league's most explosive offense, held up, giving the offense two chances to win in the final minutes. The Cardinals stopped the 49ers near the goal line in the final seconds.

And yet, this evening was encouraging for the 49ers. Highly encouraging. This was the kind of game that helps develop the soul of a team in search of one.

San Francisco entered a hostile place where the Cardinals haven't lost since last November — when they were defeated in overtime by Trent Dilfer and the 49ers — and exchanged blows with the best team in the division.

"We had to scrape and fight for everything we got," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals, however, are the worst kind of matchup for the 49ers, for San Francisco's defense isn't built to contain the assortment of weapons at Arizona's disposal.

Kurt Warner is having a phenomenal year and carved the 49ers just as effectively as he has most other teams, passing for 328 yards. While the 49ers did a fairly good job of stifling star wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, young Steve Breaston caught six passes, for 105 yards, before halftime.

The defense gave the offense a chance to win it. Offense gave the defense an opportunity to win it.

Though the length of the Singletary Era has yet to be determined, the possibility of it extending beyond this season exists.

Act Two of the Singletary Era began with a punch to the collective gut of the Cardinals, Rossum's electrifying kickoff return. There were glimpses of a team bonding around its coach, whether it was Frank Gore embracing the coach after dropping a crucial third-and-five pass or Davis embracing Singletary — after the tight end celebrated his touchdown by yanking off his helmet and drawing a penalty.

The 49ers are not, however, remotely close to championship-caliber. We've known that for years. They have miles to go before they can contend for a whiff of the postseason. The coach, whether it's Singletary or someone yet to be identified, will need help from above in improving the roster.

But for one game, with the world watching, the Niners look to be crawling in the right direction.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.