SAN FRANCISCO - Jim Harbaugh is a self-described worry wart, a guy who frets about upcoming games even when a two-win team like the St. Louis Rams is coming to town. Harbaugh was stewing so much last week that Frank Gore felt it was necessary to switch roles by giving the head coach a brief pep talk. In fact, he had several of them.
"He came up to me probably half a dozen times and said, 'Coach, we got this. We got this,'" Harbaugh said. "And I believed him. I trusted him."
And why not? The 49ers more than handled the overmatched Rams Sunday, then doused Harbaugh's concerns for good with the coach's first NFL Gatorade bath.
There was plenty to celebrate. In beating St. Louis 26-0, the 49ers secured their first trip to the playoffs since 2002, something they toasted by passing out black "NFC West Champions" hats after the game.
The last time team president Jed York spoke to reporters in a post-game locker room was a year ago in St. Louis, mere hours before he fired head coach Mike Singletary. "I had the flu that day, so it wasn't a real fun day for me," said York, who hired Harbaugh two weeks later. "This time is a little bit better. I knew that we had talent on this team, and I've said that a lot. It's great to see it all come together."
The game also was a milestone for Gore, who passed Joe Perry's franchise mark for career rushing yards. Entering the game, Gore needed 22 yards to pass Perry, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969. Gore finished with 73 yards. An additional 1,345 yards Perry accumulated with the 49ers when the team played in the All-American Football Conference are not counted by the 49ers or the NFL.
Gore was one of several players who stayed on the field long after the game waving large red and gold flags in front of the long-suffering Candlestick crowd. Gore even brought the flag into the locker room as part of the players' post-game party. "There have been some tough years here," Gore said. "And now to get the opportunity to go to the postseason and get it early - that is a blessing."
The offensive storyline, however, was not the running game but the passing attack, especially the sudden emergence of the deep ball.
Heading into the game, Alex Smith's longest pass of the season was a short dump off to Kendall Hunter that the running back advanced for 44 yards. Smith twice beat that mark Sunday, the first on a perfectly thrown 52-yard pass to Michael Crabtree, who said he finally was "100 percent healthy" after breaking his foot in June.
The play was set up by fellow receiver Ted Ginn, who crossed beneath Crabtree and took the Rams safety with him. That left Crabtree in single coverage with Rams cornerback Justin King. Smith's pass hit Crabtree in stride at the six-yard line, and he dragged King the rest of the way for his second touchdown of the season.
In the fourth quarter, Smith hit another wide receiver, Kyle Williams, on an intermediate route. Williams, the quickest player on the 49ers, turned up field, slipped past safety Josh Gordy and wasn't touched on a 56-yard scamper. It was Williams' third touchdown of the year, the best mark for a 49ers wideout.
Smith, meanwhile, was 17-23 for 274 yards and was replaced by rookie Colin Kaepernick late in the game. Smith left with a passer rating of 142.3, the highest of his career. It would have been higher still if tight end Vernon Davis hadn't dropped a would-be 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Smith, the quarterback the 49ers drafted in 2005 to help resurrect the woebegone franchise, was one of the players who surrounded Harbaugh for the Gatorade sneak attack as the clock wound down.
"I was joking with him," Smith said. "I mean, the guy's so competitive that he jukes the Gatorade dump. It, like, barely touched him. And I was giving him a hard time about that sweatshirt he always wears. It was like a shammy. The water didn't even stick to it. It rolled off."
-- Matt Barrows