Playing it safe has 49ers sorry in St. Louis

Fourth-and-half-an-inch. That was the not-so-daunting situation staring at Mike Nolan in the final minutes Sunday after his team had just slashed and gashed its way down the field against one of the NFL's worst run defenses. But with an opportunity to slam the door shut on the reeling Rams, Nolan left it cracked open by kicking a field goal, and St. Louis made the 49ers pay for playing it safe.

And just like that, another inspiring victory was snatched away from the 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome and their surging season took a boomerang turn.

Given a shot of new life, the Rams embarked on an 80-yard driving to the winning touchdown to pull out a 20-17 victory that for much of the fourth quarter appeared to belong to the 49ers.

"This is a game we should have won," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said, and it was pretty difficult to make any convincing argument to the contrary after the Niners slipped to 5-6 and saw their budding playoff hopes take a huge hit.

The Niners appeared on their way to a momentous fourth consecutive win after they stuffed the St. Louis offense for the third time in a row early in the fourth quarter and - protecting a slim 14-13 lead - then launched a time-chewing drive that took them down the field and deep into St. Louis territory.

With running back Frank Gore leading the charge, the 49ers ran the ball right down the Rams' throats, taking it from their own 18-yard line to the St. Louis 7 on a 13-play drive that featured only one pass and had the St. Louis fans booing their team for the Rams' inability to stop the bleeding on the ground.

Gore gained 40 of his game-high 134 yards rushing on the drive, and the 49ers were pushing back the Rams on every play until rookie Michael Robinson took a handoff on third-and-1 and was stacked up at the line of scrimmage and pushed back.

It appeared that Robinson's forward progress was enough for the first down, but the spot was not a good one for the 49ers, and the chains came out for a measurement.

And when those chains were stretched out, the nose of the football was almost kissing the yard-marker. The 49ers literally had less than an inch to go for the first down.

"If they would've gotten a first down, I think the game would've been over," Rams defensive end Leonard Little said.

But the way the 49ers were running over and through the league's 31st-ranked run defense, it was a no-brainer call, right?

Well, no. Considering the way the San Francisco defense had been playing - the Rams had produced just 51 net yards of offense in the second half to that point - Nolan sent out Joe Nedney to make a gimme 24-yard field goal that gave the 49ers a 17-13 lead.

But a first down there would have allowed the 49ers to burn more time off the clock, if not go in for a touchdown, and San Francisco could have buried the Rams right then and there. Fourth-and-half-an-inch, coach?

"I thought about it at the time, run it hard, but we're on the road," Nolan said. "Three points. Go up by four, make it a touchdown game. I wouldn't change anything."

Well, Nolan probably would change what happened next.

The Rams got the ball back at their own 20 with 3:54 remaining, and Nolan's decision to once again put the outcome riding on his defense looked like a good one when Bryant Young charged through and sacked Bulger for a 10-yard loss on first down.

But on third-and-14, Steven Jackson got 13 yards back on a short pass, setting up a fourth-and-1 at the St. Louis 29 that could have been the Rams' final play. Instead, Jackson rumbled for the first down, and it kick-started a 12-play drive that - after Jackson converted again on fourth-and-1 at the San Francisco 13 - culminated with Bulger's five-yard scoring pass to Kevin Curtis with just 29 seconds remaining.

"When you allow teams to stick around, they're not going to lay down," said Young, who had 1.5 sacks. "The Rams are a team that will fight you till the end. And we just never seemed to take advantage of those opportunities that we had and we lost the game. We felt like we were putting something together, but we come here and just couldn't finish this one off."

Rookie linebacker Manny Lawson intercepted Bulger on the game's opening drive, but the 49ers couldn't do anything with that opportunity. The 49ers reached the St. Louis 34 early in the second quarter, but Nolan - in a 0-0 game - decided to pass on a 51-yard field goal attempt by Nedney, even though that is within his range in the sanitary conditions of a dome.

That was another Nolan decision that proved pivotal, because St. Louis coach Scott Linehan allowed Jeff Wilkins to attempt a 51-yard field goal at the end of the first half, and Wilkins drilled it for three points that ultimately would be the difference in the game.

After getting a short field goal from Wilkins to open the scoring midway through the second quarter, the Rams got a huge break when Arnaz Battle fumbled trying to split two defenders on a punt return with three minutes remaining before halftime. Jackson - who finished with 121 yards rushing after a 103-yard first half - barreled up the middle and then broke to the outside for a 36-yard touchdown jaunt on the next play, giving the Rams a commanding 10-0 lead.

But the 49ers bounced right back, with quarterback Alex Smith directing a quick four-play, 73-yard touchdown drive on the next series that ended with Gore running over St. Louis defenders on a 12-yard scoring burst.

When the 49ers assembled a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to take their first lead midway through the third quarter, the momentum clearly had switched to San Francisco, and the 49ers kept building on it deep into the fourth quarter.

But one play changed all that.

"We can only blame ourselves," Lawson said. "We just have to put this one behind us and move on."

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