Jim Harbaugh gets baptized as a NFC West champion
Vernon Davis pulled on a black “NFC West champions” hat to dress up his suit and tie for a snazzy night on the town with some San Francisco offensive teammates. They were off for a celebratory steak dinner at one of the city’s hotspots.
This meal – for Davis, Frank Gore, Alex Smith and a host of others who have experienced hard times with the Niners – has been years in the making. Seven, to be exact, for Gore and Smith, and six for Davis. Star linebacker Patrick Willis, he has been waiting five.
They are waiting no more.
The 49ers trounced the beat-up St. Louis Rams 26-0 on Sunday to become the NFL’s second team to secure a playoff berth behind unbeaten defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay. Jim Harbaugh’s focused bunch wrapped up that long-awaited division title for a once-proud franchise determined to return to the glory days of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, Steve Young and Roger Craig.
The Niners are NFC West champs and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“We want to make it to the championship. It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time,” Davis said. “This is the reason why I’m here. It means a lot to me.”
Harbaugh delivered exactly what the 49ers hired him for back in January: immediate success, a major transformation in a matter of months. So much for the lockout slowing him down.
Left tackle Joe Staley delivered the Gatordade dousing on Harbaugh’s head in the closing moments – sneaking up on the coach at the 2-minute warning. Or so he thought. Harbaugh, a 15-year NFL quarterback himself in his day, dodged out of the way to avoid being fully soaked.
“This step, this game today is for all those strong and mighty men who have been carrying the flag for this many years,” Harbaugh said. “Each year that they’ve been here, thinking that was going to be the year, the year we go to the playoffs … and there’s disappointment when you don’t make that.”
Gore helped run San Francisco (10-2) right into the postseason, becoming the 49ers’ career rushing leader by passing late Hall of Famer Joe Perry and finishing with 73 yards on the ground.
Alex Smith threw second-half touchdowns of 52 and 56 yards to Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams and David Akers kicked four field goals to help Harbaugh join George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997) as the only rookie coaches in franchise history to win the division.
The only downer came when Willis left the game in the first half with a right hamstring injury that Harbaugh afterward said he didn’t consider serious.
Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley struggled in place of injured starter Sam Bradford for the reeling Rams (2-10), who watched several more key players go down.
Even Feeley needed X-rays afterward on his right thumb.
“It’s kind of the same story we’ve had all year. We just can’t seem to put anything together,” he said. “It’s like a clock where everybody’s got to be in sync. When that doesn’t happen you put yourself in a tough situation.”
The 49ers bounced back from a discouraging 16-6 loss at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night against the Ravens and Harbaugh’s big brother, John, with another methodical victory. Smith was sacked nine times in that game and four more Sunday.
Despite further problems converting in the red zone early, San Francisco shut out an opponent for the first time since a 35-0 home win at Candlestick Park on Oct. 4, 2009. That was also the last time the Rams had been shut out.
The Niners also avenged a late-season loss from 2010 that was still plenty fresh. They had a chance to win the NFC West with a victory before losing at St. Louis in the second-to-last week. It was after that game when coach Mike Singletary was fired. That led to the high-profile hiring of Harbaugh in January. And the 49ers’ transformation began in earnest.
San Francisco’s impressive season might help shed that “NFC Worst” stigma from the West.
“It’s not a Hollywood team,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a blue-collar team.”
Smith, who didn’t start that last game against the Rams, completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with no interceptions to finish with a career-high 142.3 quarterback rating. He gave way to rookie backup Colin Kaepernick midway through the fourth quarter.
Gore had a two-yard run early in the second quarter to give him 7,345 career yards rushing, moving him past Perry (7,344) for most in franchise history. He finished the game with 7,417 career yards.
The 28-year-old Gore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his seventh NFL season, has said it was a goal for this season to become the career rushing leader – though getting to the playoffs for the first time has always been the top priority.
“There’ve been some tough years here,” Gore said. “To get an opportunity to get to the postseason and to get it early, that’s a blessing.”
Gore and his teammates are wearing No. 34 helmet decals this season in honor of Perry, the first NFL player with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and nicknamed “The Jet” for his sensational speed. He died in April at age 84.
Willis watched the second half on the sideline in a sweatsuit.
The four-time Pro Bowler landed awkwardly after missing a tackle on fullback Brit Miller, who made an 18-yard completion from Feeley with 4:28 left in the first quarter. Willis’ body twisted as he fell to the ground and he stayed down for a short time as trainers ran out to check on him, then helped him limp off the field.
Akers kicked field goals of 36 and 19 yards then booted a 28-yarder 1:41 before halftime for his 31st of the year, topping Jeff Wilkins’ single-season franchise mark of 30 set in 1996.
That gave the 49ers nine field goals – with only three TDs – in the last 14 trips to the red zone before Crabtree’s TD catch. Akers kicked a 34-yarder in the third quarter.
By that time, the rout was on – and the 49ers were well on their way to their first title and playoff berth in nine seasons.