A loss that will linger

The 49ers lost a game they should have won Sunday in St. Louis. But it also was a game they deserved to lose. And just like that ... Poof! There goes the air out of San Francisco's super start to the 2003 season, and now the Niners start over again after an afternoon of missed opportunities and mistakes at the Edward Jones Dome led to an agonizing 27-24 overtime loss to the Rams that will leave the losers wondering what might have been well into the next week.

"It's a devastating loss for us," Niners running back Kevan Barlow said.

There was no better way to put it.

The Niners absorbed their fifth consecutive loss in St. Louis after a game in which they: 1) dominated the entire first half; 2) allowed the Rams to stay in the game then take control of it; 3) came back with an exhilarating late drive to tie the game; 4) then blew a golden opportunity to end it in the final seconds before overtime.

Given that extra chance, the Rams wasted little time snatching the win in the extra period after winning the overtime coin toss. Arlen Harris returned the overtime kickoff 42 yards to the St. Louis 48, and the Rams were moved further forward a play later by the last of San Francisco's 13 penalties for 121 negative yards. After Marshall Faulk slipped away for a 22-yard pass reception two plays later, Jeff Wilkins drilled a gimme 28-yard field goal to end it.

"To lose one at the end like that ... It was hard to take," said Niners coach Dennis Erickson, whose team had blasted the Chicago Bears 49-7 last week in his San Francisco debut. "Particularly when you have a chance to win on the road like that."

With a chance to saddle the Rams with an 0-2 start and establish some early control in the NFC West, the Niners allowed St. Louis to take command in the second half. San Francisco out-gained the Rams 191-67 in the first two quarters but had only a 10-7 halftime lead to show for it. So when the Rams began turning matters around in the third quarter, building a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Niners needed some late-game theatrics just to get back to even.

They got them as quarterback Jeff Garcia engineered an 11-play, 85-yard drive in the final three minutes, hitting Terrell Owens for a 13-yard touchdown to tie the score on a 4th-and-8 play with 19 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

Then the Niners got a little luck in a game of wacky bounces and wild swings in momentum.

Kicker Jeff Chandler - whose woes continued when he booted the opening kickoff out of bounds and later missed a 43-yard field goal - then attempted to squib the ensuing kickoff up the middle. But it bounced off a Ram, and the Niners recovered the ball in the free-for-all for it that followed.

Two plays later, with nine seconds remaining, Garcia found Cedrick Wilson curling deep near the right sideline. Wilson caught the pass and split two defenders, but instead of getting down he started running across the field. When he finally was stopped after a 29-yard gain that took the ball to the St. Louis 26, the clock had expired and the Niners had blown an opportunity to give Chandler a makeable game-winning field goal attempt.

"He was trying to make a play," said Erickson, who said everybody in the offensive huddle was made aware to get down before the clock ran out if such a situation were to arise. "Obviously, he didn't think about it."

The Niners never touched the ball again, losing a game in which they held a 390-278 advantage in total yardage, forced four turnovers, sacked Bulger five times and clearly had the Rams on the ropes several times.

"A loss like this definitely stays within you, at least for a day or two," said Niners linebacker Julian Peterson, who was tremendous all day and finished with eight tackles, a sack and forced a fumble. "But our team is a lot better than we played today. It's a long season. We just have to take it out on the team we play next week."

That's the Cleveland Browns, but the Niners won't be thinking about them for a while. This was the kind of loss - particularly considering the situation and opponent - that tends to linger.

"Hopefully," Erickson said, "we live and learn by it."

Niners Digest Top Stories