The Niners made sure of that Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Point with the old team to beat in the NFC West standing by. That's the St. Louis Rams, down and dumped and now dwelling at the bottom of the division.
The 49ers and Rams – bitter rivals since 1950 – definitely are two teams going in opposite directions in early October. That was made perfectly clear during the three hours that the Niners pummeled the Rams 37-13 before a sellout crowd of 67,853 that thoroughly enjoyed a spectacle they used to see all too often in the not-so-distant past.
But not much lately.
"It's definitely a nice feeling to have been able to put them away," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said after the Niners did exactly that with by far their strongest and most complete performance of the season. "It's nice to get that monkey off our backs and finally get a win against the Rams. We hadn't done that in three years going into today."
But now they've done it in convincing fashion, ending a six-game losing streak to St. Louis. During that span, the Rams rose from a perennial doormat into a Super Bowl champion and one of the most explosive offensive teams the NFL ever has seen. The Niners, meanwhile, fell to the bottom of the league before making a quick climb back toward the top.
After punishing the Rams – the hurdle that all year the Niners have been saying they needed to get past to progress to the next level – San Francisco is sitting pretty atop the NFC West at 3-1 while the defending NFC champion Rams are 0-5 and already thinking about next season. No 0-5 team ever has made the playoffs.
San Francisco's playoff hopes, however, are right on course. And now, the Niners have cleared their biggest hurdle of the past two seasons and can begin aiming – even at this early point in the season – at things such as division titles and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"Most of this team hasn't beaten the Rams," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "Now we have."
And this wasn't just a win. It was a rout. The Niners dominated on both sides of the football.
And, in a development perhaps most pleasing to San Francisco, the 49ers' offense finally came alive.
"We controlled the tempo, we took it to them all day running the football, we made some good decision throwing and guys made plays," Garcia said.
That about covers it. On a day they figured to need it most, the Niners got untracked offensively after three subpar – by their standards – performances to begin the season.
Leading the way, once again, was Garcia, who was regarded by many as the main culprit for a struggling offense that was ranked just 22nd in the NFL entering the game. Garcia – the NFL's third-ranked passer last year for the league's fourth-ranked offense – was just 24th in the NFL passer ratings entering the game.
But all those numbers will be going up after the Niners produced 386 yards of offense – 247 in the first half before sitting on a huge 27-3 halftime lead during the final two quarters – and Garcia broke out of his mini-slump by completing 18 of 26 passes for 214 yards. He passed for one touchdown and also ran for one.
Once again, Garcia got the ball early and often to star receiver Terrell Owens, who had just 11 receptions in San Francisco's first three games. Owens had a game-high seven receptions for 89 yards on Sunday as the 49ers – for the first time this season - began to resemble the diverse, explosive attack that helped return to the team to prominence last year.
The 49ers threw 27 passes and rushed the ball 27 times. How's that for balance? While Garcia and Co. were getting it going through the air again – besides Owens, J.J. Stokes contributed a 13-yard scoring reception for San Francisco's first touchdown and he also had a 51-yard catch on another scoring drive – the Niners also continued to rumble for big yardage on the ground.
After running over the Washington Redskins for 252 yards before their bye week, the 49ers blasted the Rams for 179 yards on the ground, with the tailback tandem of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow doing heavy damage throughout the game.
Hearst burst through the line and around right end for a 40-yard gain on San Francisco's second offensive play, and that pretty much set the tone for the afternoon. Hearst finished with 116 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries – an 8.9 average – while Barlow averaged a healthy five yards a chunk on his 10 carries.
"I think we got some things down now on offense," Owens said. "It was very important for us to get the ball going on the ground. Garrison did a good job running for us, finding holes, getting up field. When we get our running game going, it obviously opens us up for the pass."
Owens continued, "We also got some things down on defense. We just have to clean up a few things now and keep it going."
Actually, San Francisco's defense cleaned up all afternoon against the Rams' once-vaunted offense.
The Niners harassed quarterback Jamie Martin – starting his first game in place of injured NFL MVP Kurt Warner – throughout the afternoon. And San Francisco's defense also held in check running back Marshall Faulk, who could turn his 18 carries and seven receptions into just 110 combined yards. That's just a 4.2-yard gain every time the Rams' most dangerous weapon touched the football.
After driving for a field goal on their first possession, the Rams were forced to punt on their next two drives and their two drives after that ended with Martin interceptions, both of which the Niners turned into scores.
The second of those picks was deadly.
With just 12 seconds left in the half – and already trailing 20-3 – Martin tried to get the ball to Faulk in the left flat with the Rams at their own 41-yard line. The ball was off target, deflected off Faulk's hands and dangled in the air before the wide eyes of Niners' cornerback Jason Webster.
"My responsibility was to play outside and contain," Webster said. "I read the screen and there was a good rush by the defensive line. I got the tip and, thank God, the interception, and ran it in for the touchdown."
That had the Rams staring at a 27-3 halftime deficit. The game already was over. So was St. Louis' short reign atop the NFC West.
It's the 49ers sitting there now, looking down – way down, as now is the case – at the team that was supposed to be their biggest roadblock to success this season.