"Missed opportunities," Niners receiver Terrell Owens said. "Time and time again, we just had a lot of missed opportunities on offense."
He would know. On the first play from scrimmage, Owens broke open across the middle on a deep route. There was no safety in his way. He was gone. He had clear sailing to the end zone as he reached out for the Jeff Garcia pass coming his way. But Owens never had a chance to get his hands on it. He never had an opportunity to get the 49ers into the land of quick six, to give them a sudden lead that could have turned the whole afternoon in San Francisco's favor. The pass was overthrown by Garcia.
The Niners never would have that kind of opportunity again on a long, frustrating and disappointing afternoon in St. Louis. "We just wanted to take a shot on the opening play, let them know that we came to win," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "And we missed it."
And win they didn't. The Rams, given that early reprieve, quickly assumed command and carried it to the finish to humble the 49ers and end San Francisco's five-game winning streak with a thorough 27-14 victory. Two plays after the Niners' game-opening miss, Garcia looked for Owens again on San Francisco's third play from scrimmage. Aeneas Williams stepped in front of the pass for an interception deep in San Francisco territory, and the momentum the Niners could have had after winning the opening coin toss went tumbling to the artificial turf like a deflated balloon. It remained there the rest of the afternoon.
The Rams turned Williams' interception into a touchdown, built that lead to 14-0 and carried a 21-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. The Rams (10-2) were able to build that lead primarily because the Niners (9-3), after their first drive was ruined by Williams' interception, went three plays and out on their next two offensive drives. Besides a 13-play drive that gave the Niners their lone first-half touchdown, San Francisco recorded just one first down while gaining just 50 yards the rest of the opening two quarters.
"We didn't establish much on defense right from the get-go," Mariucci said. "All of the yards that we had and the two touchdown drives that we put together were lengthy and time consuming and it wasn't easy. We didn't get the big chunk of yardage plays that you have to have when you need to score a lot of points. You've got to have several big plays and we were unable to find those."
They kept looking all day. But with Garcia erratic throughout the afternoon in what may have been the worst game of his NFL career, and Owens being kept under wraps most of the day by Williams, the Niners had nine of their 11 drives last six plays or fewer. Each of those nine drives ended with no points for San Francisco. And on this day, that wasn't going to be nearly enough to keep up with the Rams.
"We had to put some points on the board, and we didn't do that," Owens said. "We knew we were going to have to match them touchdown for touchdown. They just played a great game and kept us out of the end zone." In doing so, the Rams limited the Niners to a season-low in points and also to a season-low 220 yards. When the Rams beat the Niners 30-26 in San Francisco on Sept. 23, they limited San Francisco to what had been its previous season low of 232 yards. The Rams are the only team to limit the Niners' offense – which ranked No. 2 behind the Rams entering the game – to below 340 yards in a game this season.
"The thing we wanted to do was send a message early and often that this was going to be a physical football game," Rams linebacker London Fletcher said. "Aeneas makes a great interception early in the game, we hit their receivers and I think that changed the course of the game. We were able to get after the quarterback. We didn't hold our defensive line back like the first time we played them. You saw the results."
The results were Garcia uncharacteristically spraying the ball all over the field and missing open receivers. The usually accurate passer – the NFC's top-ranked quarterback entering the game – had a horrible first half and didn't get a whole lot better after halftime. He finished just 13 of 36 for 146 yards with two interceptions and saw his streak of eight consecutive games with two or more touchdown passes come to a screeching halt as the Niners failed to get the ball into the end zone through the air for the first time this season. It also ended Garcia's string of 15 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.
"I struggled," Garcia said. "I never really caught on. It was a tough game on me. It was just a tough game on us all day offensively. They did a great job on making plays and forcing me out of the pocket at times and there weren't many windows of opportunity to make plays. No matter what we seemed to try to do, they were on top of it. They were a step ahead of us it seemed like every single play."
That about covers it.
The Rams were a step ahead from the start, and they remained there the rest of the afternoon. A resilient San Francisco defense, however, kept the Niners in the game and kept the outcome from becoming a blowout. That unit limited the Rams to two Jeff Wilkins field goals in the second half and forced two turnovers. But the Niners were unable to take advantage either time.
Down 21-7 early in the third quarter, San Francisco was forced to punt after Zack Bronson intercepted a Kurt Warner pass on St. Louis' opening drive of the third period. Down 27-14 after Garcia's 1-yard touchdown run with 4:42 remaining in the game, the Niners failed to recover an onside kick that was there for the taking, but got the ball back anyway three plays later when Derek Smith recovered a fumble.
There would be no dramatic comeback in the final minutes for San Francisco this time, though. The Niners gave the ball back to the Rams on downs five plays later. Missed opportunities? You could say that. Owens, of course, did. Several times. Over and over, in fact. On this Sunday, that's all there really was to say for the 49ers.