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(Sunday, January 1st)
Final Score: San Francisco 34, St. Louis 27
St. Louis, MO (Sports Network) - At the time Anthony Dixon scored on a one- yard run with 6:30 left in fourth quarter, the touchdown seemed like the finishing touch on a victory that would secure the NFC's No. 2 seed for the 49ers.
San Francisco still locked up that seed and a first-round bye, but just barely. The 49ers will host their divisional round game on Saturday, January 14 at 4:30 p.m. (et).
Needing only a victory over St. Louis to guarantee the bye, the 49ers held off a late-game rally by the Rams to earn a 34-27 victory.
Thanks to an onside kick recovery, St. Louis scored two touchdowns after Dixon's score made it a 34-13 game, and was in position to tie the game. After forcing the 49ers to punt, the Rams held the ball near midfield with just under four minutes to play.
But backup quarterback Kellen Clemens suffered a right ankle injury after leading St. Louis into San Francisco territory, the Rams turned the ball over on downs with Tom Brandstater under center, and the Niners held on for the crucial win.
Alex Smith threw for 219 yards a touchdown for the 49ers (13-3), who have had massive success in Jim Harbaugh's first season as head coach. They improved by seven wins from last season, won the NFC West division for the first time since 2002 and recorded 13 victories for the first time since 1997.
"They dominate the details," Harbaugh said of his players. "That's what they've been doing for 17 weeks, and that's what we're going to have to do to continue."
Meanwhile, the Rams (2-14) took a fairly large step backward from last season, when they went 7-9. The five-win regression may put Steve Spagnuolo on the hot seat, though St. Louis was without starting quarterback Sam Bradford for six games.
"There were some things we couldn't control, some things we could," Spagnuolo said. "Certainly think we should be better than 2-14, but I do think there was tremendous growth. You grow more in a situation like this than you do when it's all going easy."
Bradford missed Sunday's contest because of a high ankle sprain, leaving Clemens to start for the third time this season. He finished with 226 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
The pick came with nine minutes left in the game, and led to the 49ers taking over at the St. Louis 13-yard line. Kendall Hunter then rushed three times before Dixon plunged into the end zone.
At that point, the Niners did seem to have full control because they had been progressively taking it since the first half. They built a 20-7 lead at halftime and had held the Rams to field goals in the second half.
After Josh Brown kicked a 49-yarder to bring St. Louis within 10 with five minutes left in the third quarter, San Francisco lined up for a field goal only to surprise the Rams with a trick play. Kicker David Akers threw an accurate pass to a wide-open Michael Crabtree for a 14-yard touchdown.
Brown then made a 48-yarder before Dixon scored.
But the Rams got back into the game thanks to two quick scores and some good luck. Clemens found Brandon Lloyd for a 36-yard score with 4:49 left, and Bryan Kehl recovered the ensuing onside kick, which put the Rams at the San Francisco 36.
Clemens went back to Lloyd with another deep throw, which was incomplete, but a defensive pass interference call brought the Rams to the one-yard line. Cadillac Williams crashed over the goal line on the next play.
The 49ers didn't help themselves by going three-and-out on the following possession, leaving the Rams 3:37 on the clock. They moved into Niners territory when Clemens hit Brandon Gibson with a 21-yard strike on third down, but suffered a big blow two plays later.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman rushed into the backfield to sack Clemens, whose right foot stuck in the turf as Bowman sacked him. His ankle twisted awkwardly and he hopped off the field with the help of two trainers. Brandstater came in and threw two incomplete passes to give the ball back to the Niners, who gained a first down to run out the clock.
The Rams said after the game that X-rays on Clemens' ankle did not show a fracture, and that the extent of the injury is unknown.
The 49ers didn't have much success early on. Akers missed a 48-yard field goal on their opening possession, and San Francisco's defense buckled on the following Rams possession.
It had forced St. Louis into a 3rd-and-7 at the Niners' 18 and put a lot of pressure on Clemens, forcing him to scramble out of the pocket. But San Francisco couldn't get a hand on Clemens as he rushed to the right sideline.
Two Niners defenders unsuccessfully tried to dive to catch Clemens, who faked out safety Donte Whitner to get across the goal line. It was only the second rushing touchdown San Francisco allowed this season.
San Francisco went three-and-out on its next possession, but started to turn the game around late in the quarter. After forcing the Rams to punt from their own five-yard line, the Niners took over possession at the St. Louis 33.
On the sixth play of the drive, Smith took a snap in the shotgun formation and found he didn't have any immediate passing options. He then slipped as he started to scramble, but quickly got up before a Rams player could down him, rushed to the right sideline and dove into the end zone, thanks to key blocks from tight end Justin Peelle and running back Frank Gore.
The score was the first of several big plays that came in quick succession and gave the 49ers control of the game.
Four plays into St. Louis' next drive, Tarell Brown intercepted Jerious Norwood's pass for Clemens. Two plays later, Smith threw a quick pass along the line of scrimmage to Crabtree, who was lined up on the right side of the field. Crabtree stiff-armed and stepped around Josh Gordy, then raced the 28 yards into the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
St. Louis' offense continued to struggle, punting three times and fumbling the ball away once. Akers tacked on field goals of 36 and 42 yards to send the Niners into the break with a 20-7 advantage.
The 49ers played without receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams, who were both inactive with injuries. But Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis shouldered the receiving load well, combining for 17 catches for 210 yards...Hunter, a rookie, led the Niners with a career-high 76 rushing yards...Lloyd ended with six catches for 100 yards...Rams running back Steven Jackson lost feeling in his arm during the game, and was diagnosed with a bruised biceps.
01/01 22:29:24 ET