GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Once upon a time, the 49ers used to win on the road, even specializing in fourth-quarter comebacks.

Their offense used to score touchdowns on red-zone drives. Their running game used to dominate short-yardage plays. Their elite defense used to deny big plays.

Those attributes have vanished, and so did their cushion in the NFC playoff picture Sunday after their 21-19 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Having clinched the NFC West a week earlier, the 49ers (10-3) sputtered offensively and defensively and lost ground to the Green Bay Packers (13-0) and the New Orleans Saints (10-3).

But the 49ers do hold a tiebreaker edge for the No. 2 seed, based on their 8-2 conference record compared with the Saints' 6-3 mark.

Two themes emerged from the 49ers' somber locker room: The offense again failed to score touchdowns on red-zone drives, and the secondary couldn't stop a surprising passing attack behind backup quarterback John Skelton.

"We've been doing the same thing over and over -- it's three points, three points -- and today it bit us in the ass," running back Frank Gore said of the 49ers' field-goal trend.

The 49ers failed to cross the goal line on three drives inside the Cardinals' 10-yard line, resulting in three of David Akers' four field goals before halftime. Dating to halftime of an Oct. 30 victory over Cleveland, the 49ers have scored touchdowns on only three of 19 drives inside their opponents' 20-yard line.


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"Looking back, it's really frustrating," quarterback Alex Smith said. "Guys are frustrated. Guys want the ball. Guys want to score."

Braylon Edwards showed the most frustration when asked about the red-zone woes.

"Talk to them. They played. I didn't," said Edwards, nodding toward fellow receivers Kyle Williams and Michael Crabtree. Edwards walked off without further comment.

Although he played limited snaps, Edwards was the target of the 49ers' first red-zone play, but he unsuccessfully lunged with one hand at Smith's quick pass.

The 49ers settled for a 22-yard field goal and a 6-0 lead. Drives such as that one have helped lead to Akers' franchise-record 36 field goals, four shy of the NFL season record.

"One thing we're going to be regretting is how many points we left down there," said Alex Boone, who took over at left tackle when Joe Staley exited with a first-quarter head injury.

The Cardinals racked up the most points by a 49ers opponent in the past nine games. All three of their touchdowns came on passes from Skelton, who replaced Kevin Kolb when the starter suffered a head injury after the first series.

Larry Fitzgerald also proved to be instrumental to the Cardinals' comeback from a 19-7 deficit. He had seven receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown, and his 53-yard reception sparked the winning drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts with 11:50 remaining.

"As a secondary, we felt like it was really on our shoulders, and we lost this football game collectively," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said.

The 49ers played without linebacker Patrick Willis, who has a strained right hamstring, for only the second time in his five-year career. No one used Willis' absence as an excuse. The 49ers even had a chance to produce a fourth-quarter comeback win for the fifth time this season.

"Ball in our hands, we needed a field goal, and we didn't execute the two-minute (drill)," said Smith, who completed a season-low 48.6 percent of his passes (18-of-37, 175 yards). "We hurt ourselves all day."

With 2:51 remaining, the 49ers took over at their 32-yard line, but rather than march into Akers' vast field-goal range, they stalled out in four plays.

On third-and-1, rather than run behind multiple blockers, the 49ers opted for a pass, which was batted down by lineman Calais Campbell. On fourth-and-1, Smith scrambled extensively before uncorking a desperation pass that Kendall Hunter failed to corral at midfield.

"It was a play I should have made," said Hunter, who came in on third down once Gore limped off with an ankle injury.

And it was a game the 49ers should have won, more so than a Thanksgiving loss at Baltimore that snapped an eight-game winning streak. Now they have lost two of their past three games, and a "Monday Night Football" showdown is looming Dec. 19 against the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) at Candlestick Park.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.