49ers hold off Rams, complete huge turnaround
"I feel great," Harbaugh said after the satisfying victory over a two-win team that turned out to be a lot more hard-fought than expected after the Rams rallied from a 21-point deficit with 6:30 to play to make it interesting at the finish. "I'm not going to come in here and be sad that we won."
There was absolutely no reason for the 49ers to be feeling gloomy after completing the season with a three-game winning streak to lock up the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and the bye week that comes with it. The victory gave San Francisco a 13-3 finish, its best record since 1997.
In the process, the impenitent Harbaugh set a NFL record for most wins by a rookie head coach with a team that had a losing record the season before he took over.
The 49ers could use the bye week, with wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) and tight end Delanie Walker (jaw) out for the finale. Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore sat out the second half with what Harbaugh vaguely described as "something that was bothering him," although Gore said he was not hurt.
"It was a coach's decision, but I'm fine," said Gore, who finished sixth in the NFL with 1,211 rushing this season after being held to 9 yards on seven carries. "I'm getting my body real fresh. We were up three touchdowns. I'm cool, I'm good."
After beating the Rams for the second time in five weeks, 49ers players were happy to be getting a break.
"I'll sit back and watch the games. Let the games begin," tight end Vernon Davis said. "My mind is about to go on a whole new phase, that's the way I see it."
Record-setting kicker David Akers showed off a strong left arm to match his strong left leg as Michael Crabtree bamboozled defenders on a perfectly executed fake field goal that made it 27-10 in the third quarter. Crabtree appeared to be leaving the field but stopped just shy of the sideline and no defender followed.
"Kind of like I disappeared on the sideline, but I was two feet away, so it worked out," Crabtree said. "They didn't see me. I was just over there really just chillin', waiting on D.A. (Akers) to throw me the ball."
Crabtree caught scoring passes from Akers and Alex Smith for the 49ers, who led 34-13 after Anthony Dixon's 1-yard touchdown run with 6:30 to play.
Akers broke the NFL single-season field goal record last week and finished with 44, including five in the first half of the two St. Louis meetings. He missed on a 48-yarder, but clicked from 36 and 42 yards. He set a NFL record Sunday after finishing the season with 52 field-goal attempts.
Davis also had a big day for a team short of pass catchers and Tarell Brown had a pair of interceptions that led to touchdowns. The 49ers held St. Louis to just 157 total yards in a 26-0 victory that clinched the NFC West in Week 12 but were hanging on at the finish of the rematch after the Rams scored two touchdowns in just 13 seconds.
Brandon Lloyd caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Kellen Clemens, the Rams recovered Josh Brown's on-side kick and Cadillac Williams scored on a 1-yard run with 4:39 to go one play after Lloyd drew an interference call on Brown in the end zone.
The Rams were rescued from the ignominy of landing the No. 1 draft pick for the second time in three years when the Colts (2-14) lost 19-13 to the Jaguars. The Colts hold the tiebreaker based on opponents' strength of schedule, leaving St. Louis with the second overall pick and their fourth top-two pick in five seasons.
The Rams scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, six better than their NFL-low game average, but were down to untested Tom Brandstater and third-and-17 after Clemens injured his right ankle on a sack by NaVorro Bowman with 2:46 to go.
Brandstater threw two incompletions, the 49ers took over at their own 40 and needed just one first down to seal it—and exhale.
"I think we kind of got a little relaxed and didn't play the type of defense we're supposed to play," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It can turn on you in a matter of seconds and that's what happened, and we can't allow that to happen going forward."
The 49ers finished 6-2 on the road, the franchise's best showing since 1996. Harbaugh is just the fourth rookie head coach to win 13 games and third by the 49ers, topped only by George Seifert's 14-2 showing with San Francisco in 1989.
Clemens ran for an 18-yard score to give the Rams the early lead. Clemens made his third straight start in place of Sam Bradford (high left ankle sprain) and A.J. Feeley (broken right thumb). Bradford, the top pick in 2010, missed his fourth straight game and sixth overall.
St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo went just 10-38 in his first three seasons with the Rams and his job is in jeopardy coming off a total bust this year on the heels of a six-win improvement last season, when the Rams finished 7-9 after a 1-15 season in Spagnuolo's 2009 debut. Attendance was announced as 55,990, about 9,000 shy of capacity at the Edward Jones Dome, but the stadium appeared no better than half-full and drained quickly in the second half.
Owner Stan Kroenke did not attend the game. Spagnuolo talked optimistically about offseason plans and never fretted that this could have been his final game.
"I don't go there. I think you know me well enough," Spagnuolo said. "In the middle of that game, in the fourth quarter as exciting as it was? Nah."
Meanwhile, the 49ers are going full steam ahead into the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons with their stoic, record-setting new head coach.
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