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Fantastic finish? Rams, 49ers cannot decide

11/12/2012
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

SAN FRANCISCO -- There were so many compelling stories waiting to be written on this confounding November Sunday at Candlestick Park.

We'll have to settle for all of them.

The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams made it so, with a few assists from referee Clete Blakeman and his proactive officiating crew.

This 24-24 tie did more than fittingly push the all-time series record between the teams to 61-61-3 during regular seasons.

This one also reestablished the Rams' credentials as a newly competitive team under first-year coach Jeff Fisher.

It challenged San Francisco's status as NFC West bullies, serving notice, again, that the NFC West has become the sticks-and-stones division, to borrow a favorite phrase from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

It left the Rams at 3-5-1 while weakening the 49ers (6-2-1) heading into their "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Chicago Bears in Week 11.

It opened the door, at least a little, for Seattle (6-4) to push for a division title, not just for a wild-card berth.

Mostly, this game boggled the mind.

"I don't know exactly how it feels," Harbaugh said.

It didn't feel good.

"We didn't lose, but we didn't win, and if we didn't win, then I'm not really interested in it," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said.

There was so much evidence to process.

There was Rams quarterback Sam Bradford putting together the signature drive of his three-year-old career, a 14-play march to the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left in regulation. This was Bradford at his best. When the game was finally finished, he had completed 11 of 12 attempts to Danny Amendola and 26 of 39 overall.

"Big-picture wise, we scored points and we needed to score points," Fisher said. "We've been struggling to get the ball in the end zone and we got the ball in the end zone against a good defense."

There was Amendola returning from a nasty shoulder injury to make what would have been -- and perhaps what should have been, depending upon your view of Blakeman's crew -- the pivotal 80-yard reception in overtime. Officials flagged the Rams' illegal formation. Replays showed the call might have been correct, but officials threw the flag well after the fact and well down the field, and only after conferencing. Strange and anti-climactic.

"It was a roller coaster," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "I feel like we won two games, maybe lost one and tied one today. It was unbelievable. I've never been a part of anything like that. I don't know how to think."

There was more, including young 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick coming off the bench for a concussed Alex Smith to rally his team into position for what would have been the winning 41-yard field goal in overtime, had David Akers not missed wide left. The 49ers thought Smith suffered the concussion on a fourth-and-1 sneak. They cannot be sure how long Smith will miss, but they're a lesser team in the short term without him, no question.

Kaepernick can run, but can he run the offense? He struggled with accuracy under admittedly tough conditions. Smith had been getting all the meaningful reps recently as the 49ers successfully recommitted to their regular offense.

"They lost their quarterback, but obviously their backup is talented enough to not lose the game for them," Fisher said.

As endorsements goes, that one felt like a tie.

There was also Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein driving home what would have been -- and perhaps should have been, depending again upon one's view of officiating norms -- the winning 52-yard field goal some 12 minutes into overtime. We could fault the Rams for entrusting a rookie holder, Johnny Hekker, with clock management in such a situation. But this also seemed like a strange time to enforce the game clock to what seemed like a stricter standard than usual.

Zuerlein missed from 58.

"There shouldn't be a question as to whether or not you get a field goal off to win in overtime," Fisher said. "Apparently, Johnny lost track of the time. That happens. We don't want to say it's OK -- it's certainly not OK -- but he was focused on Greg and focused on protection and just lost track of it, I guess."

Hekker, a free agent the Rams signed in part for his arm, completed two fourth-down passes on fake punts, one from his own end zone and the other during that 14-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Hekker, empowered by Fisher to audible if the opponent rushes a cornerback at the expense of coverage, did just that with the first-half clock winding down and the Rams facing fourth-and-4 from their own 10. He later completed a fourth-and-8 pass to tight end Lance Kendricks for a 19-yard gain.

Late last season, the 49ers outfoxed the Rams in devastating fashion, Akers completing a pass to Michael Crabtree on a fake field goal when St. Louis didn't even know Crabtree was on the field.

The fake punts Sunday told us those days are over.

"The first one, we were trying to block the punt before the half," Harbaugh said. "We sent our corner. They can throw a pass when they see that, and that takes a lot of gumption to do it, and they did it. The second one, again, was well-executed on their part. Tough break for us to get that done on us, but tip your hat to them."

So much had happened by game's end that some players couldn't recall specifics.

Bradford could only smile and shrug when asked about the timeout St. Louis had called with 1:13 left in regulation. The Rams followed that timeout with Bradford's 2-yard scoring pass to Austin Pettis for a 24-21 lead, but the clock stoppage gave the 49ers sufficient time to respond.

Kaepernick, taking over at his own 22 with 1:03 to play, scrambled for 19 yards on first down. The clock stopped again on the next play when Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson suffered an injury. Kaepernick followed with a 10-yard scramble and a 13-yard pass to Kyle Williams. Five seconds remained when David Akers’ 33-yard field goal forced overtime.

The Rams didn't seem to care.

Bradford went deep for Amendola on the first play of overtime. Amendola separated from Carlos Rogers while the ball was in the air. He caught the ball at the San Francisco 45 and ran all the way to the 2 before Donte Whitner finally tackled him.

The game was only beginning -- again.

Each team would possess the ball two additional times before time ran out with St. Louis completing a 24-yard pass to near midfield. The Rams faced third-and-23 on the play after taking an 8-yard sack and a 5-yard penalty for delay.

The sack was particularly costly. It was also frustrating, at least for the Rams. They had first-and-10 from their own 38 with 24 seconds remaining. A couple more completed passes might have moved them into range for another field-goal try. Zuerlein has made five from 50-plus yards, including one from 60. But the Rams couldn't stop the pass-rush combination that New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had so famously complained about.

Left guard Shelley Smith wouldn't say much about it, but Saffold overheard the questioning and nodded from his stool at the adjoining locker. The nod suggested Saffold felt as though Justin Smith, the 49ers' All-Pro defensive end, had held Shelley Smith to give teammate Aldon Smith a clearer path to the quarterback -- just as Gilbride had said the 49ers did with regularity, and in violation of holding rules.

"Justin Smith did a real good job of faking the rush and being able to grab him," Saffold said. "That allowed Aldon Smith to get around. You try to collapse it down so they'll run into each other and slow down the rush, and we were able to do that maybe three or four times, but a couple times where [Shelley Smith] needs to be firm and I need to get depth, it's harder to pass off some of the run-play action that we saw."

That's a lot of Smiths -- Shelley, Aldon and Justin, to say nothing of Alex -- and a lot to sort out. Confused? So were some of the players.

"I didn't know you could tie," 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson said. "When I saw both sides walking onto the field, I was like, ‘Where’s everybody going?'"

There was no winning or losing locker room to visit, just a lot of mixed emotions.

"I'm pissed," Long said. "We're all pissed in here because we feel like we won that game. They played a really good game, too, and they are a really good team.

"But I think we're going to see a lot of those battles for years to come here because we are a different team now. I think they know that from playing us now."