The 49ers seemed to be so concerned that they'd give off the appearance of looking past the moribund Buffalo Bills that they responded Sunday night with their most complete victory of the season in front of a national-television audience. Thoroughly dominating in just about every phase of the game, the 49ers put together a Rams-like 35-0 thrashing of the Bills.
How appropriate, because next up for the 49ers are the Rams themselves.
"Our team was bound and determined to play its best game," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "There were so many questions last week about whether our team was looking ahead to the Rams and could we stay focused on this sort of game. My answer was, 'Yes.' But I was worried about that a little."
On Sunday, the 49ers put a new twist on their season of close calls. It was the first time the 49ers did not have to come from behind. And after winning just 10 games the past two season, the 49ers assured themselves of a winning record and are closing in on a playoff spot.
In the 11 seasons in which the NFL has gone to a 12-team playoff format, teams that began the year with 9-2 records went to the playoffs 95 percent of the time. The victory was a huge relief for the 49ers, who are now faced with their biggest test of the season against the St. Louis Rams.
The teams are tied atop the NFC West with 9-2 records. The teams meet Sunday in St. Louis for the lead in the division. Home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is also a possibility for the winner. The last time the 49ers played such a meaningful regular-season game was in 1996 when they faced the Carolina Panthers in Week 14 for the NFC West lead. The 49ers lost and finished second in the division.
But before the 49ers could start focusing all their thoughts on the Rams, they had to take care of this other little matter - the Bills.
"Sometimes these are the hardest teams to play," 49ers linebacker Julian Petersons said of the Bills. "You never know what's going to happen. These kinds of teams have nothing to lose and they can come out and play fiery or they might lay down."
Although Peterson made a point of saying that the Bills (1-10) did not quit, the 49ers certainly piled on with 14 quick points late in the game for their largest victory margin since early in the 1998 season. As much as the usual 49ers offensive skill players had strong performances against the Bills, it was the defense that did most of the heavy lifting. The 49ers came into the game with the No. 24-ranked defense in the league, but they thoroughly confounded the Bills, who managed just 191 yards of total offense.
"We're still getting better," 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "We just have to keep working. Nobody is satisfied. We got a tough game next week and it's going to be a challenge." Plummer has seemed to make the biggest improvement of any player from a year ago when the 49ers finished with a 6-10 record.
On Sunday, he recorded his sixth and seventh interceptions of the season. Both interceptions led to touchdowns. It was the first time since 1960 and the third time in team history that a 49ers player has recorded multi-interception games back-to-back.
"The defense really made a statement," Mariucci said. "(Buffalo quarterback) Alex Van Pelt threw for over 300 yards the last two games, and it was really rough sledding for him out there tonight." Van Pelt, starting his third game in place of injured Rob Johnson, threw four interceptions. Niners linebacker Jamie Winborn assured the shutout when he picked off Van Pelt's pass at the goal line on the final play of the game.
The 49ers' last shutout came Dec. 17 of last season against the Chicago Bears. The 49ers held the Bills to just 191 yards of total offense, with Van Pelt completing 21 of 38 passes for 168 yards and four interceptions. And the Buffalo running attack was just as ineffective, as it gained 29 yards on 11 carries.
"It was big for us," said 49ers safety Zack Bronson. "To get the shutout going into next week's game gives us a tremendous amount of confidence. At this point, every game is big for us. We can't afford to play down to the competition. We got to be who we are, from start to finish."
For the first time all season, the 49ers never trailed. They needed no second-half comeback from quarterback Jeff Garcia this time, as the 49ers dominated from the opening kickoff.
"From the get-go, the opening drive, we marched right down the field," Garcia said. "We weren't going to allow the weather to be a factor. We weren't going to allow them to come out here and compete with us." The 49ers drove 55 yards on their first possession of the game but failed to get any points out of it when kicker Jose Cortez missed from 32-yard out.
The weather was not a factor - unless, you were stuck in a car trying to get to the stadium. But with the exception of a blunder the team blamed on the city that wiped out thousands of parking spaces and forced a large number of their fans to turn around, it was a perfect night for the 49ers. Everybody got into the act. Running back Garrison Hearst rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. It was his third 100-yard performance in the last four games. The one game during that stretch in which he did not run for more than 100 yards, he gained 92 against the Carolina Panthers.
"It feels good," Hearst said. "I owe it to my big boys up front. They are the ones who did it for me." The 49ers gained 230 yards rushing on 43 carries, including touchdown runs from fullback Fred Beasley and third-string tailback Paul Smith. They controlled the game with their running attack, holding the ball 19 minutes, 36 seconds longer than the Bills.
"In the second half when they decided to run the ball, we weren't good enough to stop them," Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "The 49ers did a really good job of running the football." And they weren't too shabby throwing it, either. Garcia completed 19 of 27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. With Terrell Owens playing with a sprained left ankle and right foot, the 49ers turned to J.J. Stokes, who caught five passes on the team's first two possessions. He finished with eight receptions for 68 yards. Owens still managed to catch six passes for 72 yards and his NFL-leading 13th touchdown of the season. And Tai Streets caught his first career TD pass - a 23-yarder in the second quarter that gave the 49ers a 14-0 lead.
Cortez was one of the few 49ers players who did not make a contribution. He missed both his field-goal attempts - chip shots from 32 and 22 yards. His 22-yarder was a low kick that hit a Buffalo lineman in the helmet. He has made just four of his last nine attempts, with all but one of his misses blocked. Despite the solid effort, Garcia said he did not think the 49ers' performance Sunday night would be good enough to beat the Rams.
"I think although it was a great team effort tonight, there is plenty of room for improvement," Garcia said. "When you're playing a team like the Rams, there is a small margin for error."