ST. LOUIS - The 49ers on Sunday discovered the downside to having an exciting and bold young quarterback as they make their run for the playoffs.
Comfortably ahead late in the fourth quarter, San Francisco called a play Colin Kaepernick had run hundreds of times at the University of Nevada but seldom with the 49ers - an option pitch. Kaepernick's toss sailed over the head of receiver Ted Ginn and wound up in the end zone in the hands of a Rams' cornerback.
The touchdown - St. Louis' only one on the day - pumped life into what had been a moribund Edward Jones Dome and eventually led to the 49ers' third loss of the season, 16-13 in overtime. That, coupled with a Seattle win, trimmed San Francisco's lead in the NFC West to 1 Â½ games.
The option pitch was a dubious play call, both because the 49ers had not run it often this year - and never to Ginn - and because of the circumstances at the time. The 49ers were ahead by eight with 3:11 remaining and were facing 3rd and 3 at their own 17-yard line.
"That was on us," Jim Harbaugh said of the coaching staff. "That was the wrong play to call at that time. I would love to have that one back. Don't blame the players on that one. It was too risky of a play to call at the time."
Said Kaepernick: "Just pitched it high. My fault all the way. Tried to make a play, should have played it safe. Should have kept it, let the clock run, let our punter get on the field."
Playing it safe has been the biggest criticism of the 49ers' former starting quarterback, Alex Smith, who watched from the sideline for the second straight game. Despite Kaepernick's error and the tightening division race, however, Harbaugh said he didn't foresee any changes at quarterback before Sunday's game against the Dolphins.
"And I'm proud of Kap - proud of the way he played," Harbaugh added. "He did some things, some really good things, under a lot of heat and duress and handled himself well, gave our team a chance to win." Kaepernick finished 21-32 for 208 yards, and he hit receiver Michael Crabtree on several critical plays in the second half. Crabtree led all receivers with seven catches for 101 yards.
Kaepernick, in fact, almost immediately made amends for his errant toss when, on the 49ers' ensuing possession, he ran to the outside, picked up blocks by Frank Gore, Bruce Miller and Randy Moss, and gained 50 yards down the sideline to the St. Louis 14 yard line. The run allowed the 49ers to pull ahead on David Akers' 33-yard field goal. On the play that preceded it, however, Kaepernick ran out of bounds after a 10-yard gain, stopping the clock.
"I was expecting to get the ball back inside of a minute with no time outs left," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Instead we have it with 1:48 and a time out left, so that certainly helped our cause."
The Rams drove seven plays to the San Francisco 35-yard line, setting up a 53-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein as time expired in regulation.
Kaepernick didn't have the 49ers' only crucial lapses.
On St. Louis' game-tying drive, safety Dashon Goldson struck sliding rams quarterback Sam Bradford, drawing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. On the preceding 49ers possession, tight end Delanie Walker dropped a perfectly thrown pass from Kaepernick in the corner of the end zone. One play after that, Walker was flagged for holding.
Then there was Akers, who for the second time this season had a chance to win an overtime game against the Rams. He missed a 41-yard attempt on Nov. 11, a game that ended in a tie. On Sunday Akers had a chance to win the game from 51 yards away.
Akers has been battling a pelvis injury in recent weeks but he said it was not a factor in overtime. His attempt had plenty of distance but drifted "probably about three or four inches to the right," he said. The Rams took over at their own 41-yard line, and seven plays later Zuerlein, a rookie, boomed the game-winning field goal from 54 yards.
Akers was asked how the team will respond to Kaepernick after his first loss. "The team will do great with Colin," he said. "He's a great guy, works hard. It shouldn't be a loss for him to begin with."
-- Matt Barrows