The Rams called this one the tiebreaker. After a 24-24 overtime draw three weeks ago, Sunday’s rematch would settle the issue with San Francisco.
After that Nov. 11 contest, there was some thought that the 49ers didn’t bring their ‘A’ game. That the Rams caught them a little flatfooted.
“They even made comments that they didn’t (play their best),” Rams defensive end Chris Long said. “They were going to bring their ‘A’ game this time, and maybe we caught ’em off guard last time. Well, you know, it kind of was what it was today.”
What it was, was another wild, intense, physical overtime game. Except this time, and after nearly 10 quarters of play between the teams this season, we have a winner. The Rams prevailed 16-13 on Greg Zuerlein’s 54-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in quarter No. 5.
“We knew it’d be a heavyweight fight,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We expected that. We really wanted to finish the fight. We talked about it all week. We went five rounds (in San Francisco). If we needed to go another five rounds we said we’ve gotta finish it this time.”
And that’s what happened. Whether the 49ers (8-3-1) brought their A, B, C, or Z game to the Edward Jones Dome is up for others to judge. But if nothing else, the Rams (5-6-1) showed that what transpired three weeks ago in Candlestick Park was no fluke, toppling the NFC West leaders and remaining unbeaten in division play at 4-0-1.
“Let me go back to the first game against them,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We played pretty well, but we had the chance to win it but we made mistakes. We made young mistakes. ... I think the perception was that, well, we might’ve caught them on a bad day. So, we get to start over again and find a way to beat the team to beat in our division. It’s a good feeling in the locker room.”
The happiest player in that locker room had to be Zuerlein, although in his typical style, he didn’t show much emotion talking to reporters afterward. How did he feel after watching the game-winner sail through the uprights in the north end zone?
“I was pretty relieved,” he said. “Relief and excitement at the same time. I was looking at (holder) Johnny (Hekker). I normally just give him a high-five or a low-five. He was screaming, and then some other people hit me, and I blacked out.”
Before turning the lights out on San Francisco, Zuerlein had endured a stretch of six missed field goals in 10 attempts over a seven-game span — a span that included a missed 58-yarder before halftime Sunday. But the player known as “The Leg” is back.
His 53-yard kick as time expired sent the game into overtime, and then came the 54-yarder — the seventh successful kick of 50 yards-plus this season for the rookie from Missouri Western.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Fisher said. “It’s good to see him bounce back after the miss, and he did. I had complete confidence in him.”
It was sweet redemption for Zuerlein after the problems in San Francisco on Nov. 11. In that game, what appeared to be a game-winning 53-yard kick in OT was negated by a delay of game flag. After the 5-yard penalty was marked off, he missed a 58-yarder wide right.
“Personally, it feels good just to make a game winner,” Zuerlein said. “I’ve had some opportunities before and didn’t convert on them.”
For the longest time Sunday, it looked the Rams would be lucky to score. The 49ers’ defense was at its snarling best, limiting the Rams to just 2 yards a play — 38 yards on 19 plays — at the 2-minute warning of the first half. Steven Jackson could find absolutely no running room, and Rams receivers were getting little separation.
The 49ers scored on their second possession of the game, on Frank Gore’s 13th career touchdown against the Rams, and it looked like that 7-0 lead might hold up all game.
But a safety induced by blitzers Janoris Jenkins and Laurinaitis got the Rams on the board with 4:27 left in the third quarter. David Akers’ 23-yard field goal with 8:43 left in regulation pushed the 49ers’ lead to 10-2 and meant the Rams needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the score.
They got just that, with Jenkins coming through once again. On third and 3 from its 17, San Francisco got too cute with its play call — to the point where even Fisher remarked, “I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish there.”
On the play, quarterback Colin Kaepernick faked a handoff into the line to Gore, then tossed a pitch to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. But the pitch was high and sailed over Ginn’s head. A hustling Jenkins scooped up the ball at the 2-yard line and rolled into the end zone for a TD.
Ginn was there first, but Jenkins got underneath for the football.
“Just listened to my coaches,” Jenkins said. “Lowest man on the ball wins.”
Jenkins cut his mouth on the play and needed stitches after the game. “Like probably, five,” he estimated.
It was that kind of day for him. Earlier in the game he was sidelined twice for a couple of plays. Once, Jenkins said it was because he got “kicked in the privates.”
On the other occasion, during a period in which in he was struggling in coverage, Rams coaches pulled him from the game to let him regroup.
“Yeah, it was just kind of to settle him down, get him focused back on techniques and things,” Fisher said.
Jenkins got refocused enough to score his third defensive touchdown of the season. Even so, the Rams still needed the 2-point conversion to tie the score at 10-10. And they got it on a pass from Sam Bradford to Lance Kendricks, a pass that came from 7 yards out after a false start penalty against left tackle Rodger Saffold with 3:04 left in regulation. Kendricks beat 49ers all-world linebacker Patrick Willis on the play.
Next, Akers and Zuerlein exchanged field goals to send the game into overtime. But in the fifth quarter, Akers missed from 51 yards just a few minutes before Zuerlein sent the crowd of 57,279 home happy, at least most of it.
“We finally won,” Bradford said. “It took 10 quarters but we finally came out on top.”