49ers replay: Road expectations have changed

The 49ers' recent three-game winning streak helped change the culture within and around the team. No longer is it OK just to be competitive during a road game. No, the 49ers now get pretty salty when they fail to win on the road. Coming off a disappointing 20-17 loss to the Rams, the 49ers will get a chance to head back out on the road this week.

The 49ers (5-6) are clinging to faint playoff hopes when they take on the Saints on Sunday in the New Orleans Superdome. The 49ers might have to run the table in their final five games of the season to make it into the playoffs for the first time since winning their last NFC West title in 2002.

The 49ers certainly let one get away against the Rams, as they had to settle for a field goal after driving 75 yards in 7:34 in the fourth quarter. Then, the defense failed to hold the Rams on two fourth-down plays, and allowed the winning touchdown pass with 27 seconds remaining after St. Louis had driven 80 yards.

"It's a lot different feeling to be here after a game and lose and say, 'I wish we had three more minutes on the clock to go out and win the game,'" 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "I don't remember saying that after a loss. That makes this a little more disappointing than some of the others.

"That says that our expectations are changing."

Even with the disappointing defeat, the 49ers are clearly showing progress under second-year coach Mike Nolan. The 49ers lost their first three road games of the season by an average of 26.3 points. But they broke through with a 19-13 victory over the Lions in Detroit on Nov. 12. The 49ers have won just one road game in each of past three seasons.

"We felt like we were putting something together," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "We came (to St. Louis) and just couldn't finish this one off."

The most disappointing aspect of the loss to the Rams was that Nolan turned the game over to his defense to win in the final minutes, but it was unable to keep the Rams out of the end zone.

The 49ers' defense has made a remarkable turnaround in the past month, but it could not come through with one last stop. The 49ers had held the Rams scoreless in the second half and had kept quarterback Marc Bulger in check the entire afternoon until he completed 9-of-9 passes on St. Louis' final drive.

"In the second half, we came out and played well, but when it counted, we didn't get it done," 49ers linebacker Brandon Moore said. "We go out and expect to win every game. We were leading going into the final drive, and it's our responsibility to hold onto the win."

The 49ers have relied on their defense and running game during their streak of improved play. Running back Frank Gore rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Rams. Gore has gained 505 yards in the past three games, setting a 49ers record during a three-game stretch.

Gore sustained a right ankle sprain in the fourth quarter against the Rams. Although he returned to the lineup after the injury, it is not known how the sprain will affect him this week against the Saints.

For the season, Gore has rushed for 1,177 yards and five touchdowns on 210 carries for a 5.6-yard average. He ranks second among the NFL's rushing leaders, trailing only Kansas City's Larry Johnson.

--- CB Walt Harris had a strong game Sunday, as he was matched against Rams WR Torry Holt for virtually the entire game. Holt caught just four of the nine passes that came his way for 30 yards. Harris had a fumble return for a TD overturned by instant replay, and an interception was negated by Roderick Green's offside penalty.
--- FB Moran Norris signed a three-year contract extension through the 2009 season. Norris has started the past nine games and has been a major force in the 49ers' success on the ground.
--- WR Arnaz Battle played just six days after having two small screws inserted into his broken left hand. Battle handled punt-return duties, but he had a costly fumble that led to a Rams touchdown.
--- TE Vernon Davis returned to the starting lineup for the first time since breaking his right fibula in Week 3. Davis played 40 of the team's 56 offensive snaps, and caught one pass for 11 yards. He and TE Eric Johnson - who started seven games in Davis' place - were on the field together for just two plays.
--- QB Alex Smith had his first multi-interception game since Oct. 1, as he completed 13 of 25 passes for one touchdown and two interceptions. Smith's passer rating was 50.1 for the game.
--- DL Bryant Young recorded 1.5 sacks, giving him five sacks for the season. Young ranks second on the team behind linebacker Brandon Moore's 5.5 sacks.

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