ST. LOUIS - Here's how far the 49ers have come this season: On Sunday they won a game on the road, clinched the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, finished the season with 13 victories and felt awful about it afterward.
That's because the 49ers built a 21- lead in the fourth quarter only to watch a banged-up Rams team storm back in the final minutes with an on-side kick and a couple of late touchdowns. The 49ers defense ultimately knocked St. Louis' starter, Kellen Clemens, out of the game, then halted the Rams' final drive to seal a 34-27 win.
But the close call cast a cloud on what should have been a celebration of the team's fine season, and the 49ers players -- their expectations lifted in Jim Harbaugh's inaugural season -- entered the visiting locker room like they were the losers. "We just kind of got a little bit relaxed," said linebacker Patrick Willis, who played his first game since Dec. 4. "And we can't afford to that if we're going to be the top defense we want to be."
It must have been hard not to relax. The 49ers seemed to be looking ahead to the playoffs even before they built their three-touchdown lead.
Starting running back Frank Gore rushed seven times for nine yards in the first half but stood idle on the sideline in the second. After the game, Harbaugh said that Gore didn't play because he "had something bothering him," but Gore said that wasn't the case.
"It was the coach's decision," Gore said. "But I'm fine. Getting my body real fresh for the playoff run, and trying to do what we want to do. And that's get the (Super Bowl) trophy." Defensive end Justin Smith, meanwhile, received the same treatment as Gore. Smith, however, grabbed his helmet and went back into the game late in the fourth quarter with the Rams driving for a game-tying score and with fellow starting defensive end Ray McDonald on the sideline being examined by trainers.
After Anthony Dixon scored a one-yard touchdown run with 6:30 remaining, the Rams responded with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Clemens to former 49er Brandon Lloyd.
The Rams recovered the ensuing on-side kick, and on the next play Clemens again went to the end zone for Lloyd. The attempt drew a pass interference penalty against cornerback Tarell Brown, who has two interceptions in the game, and set up a one-yard touchdown by Cadillac Williams to cut the lead to seven.
That's when Smith re-entered the game. Willis said that that the No. 2 seed, which comes with a first-round playoff bye, ultimately was more important to Smith than resting in the second half. Smith briefly left the 49ers' last game against Seattle but was not on the injury report leading into the Rams game. "This bye week will be big for him and the guys who played in all 16 games as far as getting healed back up and getting rested," Willis said.
On offense, meanwhile, quarterback Alex Smith dealt with a revamped receiving corps that was missing one player, Braylon Edwards, who was released last week and three others - tight end Delanie Walker and receivers Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams - who were injured. Brett Swain started at one of the wideout spots and rookie Joe Hastings, elevated from the practice squad on Saturday, entered on three-receiver sets.
Smith mostly leaned on a couple of old reliables. He hit tight end Vernon Davis eight times for 118 yards, Davis' most productive game of the season. Michael Crabtree, meanwhile, finished with 92 receiving yards, which included a 28-yard touchdown in the second quarter. That play, combined with a 14-yard touchdown toss from kicker David Akers on a fake field goal, gave Crabtree his first two-touchdown performance in his career.
With the victory, the 49ers finished the regular season with 13 wins for the first time since 1997. Now they get to rest and prepare to host a division round game in the second week of January.
The ugly win - and the players' reaction to it - also signals that the 49ers, a team that hadn't had a winning record in the previous eight seasons, won't be satisfied with a mere playoff appearance. Said Alex Smith: "Expectations have changed."
-- Matt Barrows