- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- The San Francisco 49ers obviously wanted to send the rest of the NFC a message as they make their final preparations for Week 4: We are still a team to be reckoned with at the quarter point of the season.
Make no mistake, the 49ers, particularly on offense, are not perfect four games into their NFC title defense. However, they emphatically showed Thursday night that they are not ready to remove themselves from playoff consideration. In an impressive show of will, San Francisco manhandled the St. Louis Rams, 35-11, to improve to 2-2.
If the 49ers had fallen to 1-3, their season would have been officially unraveling. Instead, they go into the long weekend feeling like Weeks 2 and 3 were correctable aberrations.
Overcoming their myriad issues was not easy, especially traveling across the country on a short week. San Francisco entered this game having been outscored by Seattle and Indianapolis by a combined 56-10. The 49ers' offense, including quarterback Colin Kaepernick, had been awful; they were banged up; and, most importantly, linebacker Aldon Smith had entered an alcohol-treatment program, just shy of his 24th birthday, and would be away from the team for at least a month.
Yes, it was a crisis week for the 49ers.
And they punched the Rams in the mouth, just as a true playoff contender would.
Every member of the organization deserved a game ball Thursday night. This was a special bounce-back win. Coach Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick would get gold game balls. They answered the call.
After losing to the Colts, the 49ers fell below .500 for the first time in Harbaugh’s 35 games at the helm, and it was the first time his team had lost back-to-back games. He and his staff, which stayed over at the facility on Sunday night, did a brilliant job. Harbaugh gave a hint of what was coming in his Monday news conference.
"We have the rare opportunity," he said, "of staring adversity in the face and whipping it.''
It was clear Harbaugh had his team prepared and the 49ers realized what was at stake. The understated Kaepernick said Tuesday when asked what was the message of the week: “We have to win.”
Yes, there is no such thing as a must-win until it is actually a must-win. That’s impossible in September. But the 49ers would have been rowing upstream for a good part of the season had they not won Thursday night.
And for the 49ers to win so impressively, with everything that ailed them, shows that this team is still very much a contender.
It started on the ground -- as it should in the 49ers’ offense. Frank Gore, often an unsung hero for the 49ers, paved the way with 153 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-inches to make the score 14-3 late in the second quarter. It was Gore’s highest rushing yardage total since 2009. The 49ers didn’t have success running the ball in the first two games of the season, and they went away from it last weekend against Indianapolis. Thursday night it was the focal point of the offensive attack and opened up the passing game for Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s statistical line was not overly impressive: He was 15-for-23 for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. In reality, Kaepernick was effective. He took what the defense gave him and threw lasers all night. Anquan Boldin made a big impact with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
“When we are at our best, we do whatever it takes offensively to be successful,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “That’s what we did tonight. The ground game worked, so we used it. We showed that we are capable of doing this every week. That’s what’s satisfying. After the last weeks, this is what we needed.”
Most importantly, San Francisco's offense took pressure off of its defense. The defense had been taking heat of its own after allowing 84 points this season. But, for the most part, the unit was solid, wearing down only late in the game. The 49ers had held a lead for just 25 plays over the first three games, all in the first week.
The San Francisco defense was refreshed Thursday night as it was staked to an early 11-point lead. Playing without Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who has a groin injury, the unit was suffocating. After wilting against the run, the 49ers allowed St. Louis just 18 yards on 19 carries. The Rams managed a total of only 188 yards of offense.
Running the ball and stopping the run. It was San Francisco 49ers’ football when they needed it the most.
“We went back to being us,” Gore said.
Yes, there are still some issues. The 49ers committed 10 penalties and now have 39 this season, the receiving corps lacks depth and the defense occasionally sagged on third-and-long.
But all of those things can be fixed. The 49ers were in a crisis. Style points were not the point Thursday. Simply winning was the tonic San Francisco needed. The 49ers showed the rest of the league, they will not go away so easily.