9:00 PM ET, December 30, 2002
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- In their season finale, the St. Louis Rams looked more like defending NFC champions than the underacheivers who finished two games below .500.Dre' Bly returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown and the Rams scored 28 fourth-quarter points to go out as winners, beating the playoff-bound San Francisco 49ers 31-20 Monday night. "I wish we'd have played a little better in the first half,'' coach Mike Martz said. "But what the heck.'' Bly stripped Garrison Hearst after a screen pass for the first scoring return all season by the Rams (7-9). "It ended the season in a perfect way,'' Bly said. "It's a tremendous way to finish and it's a great feeling.'' The NFC West champion 49ers (10-6) played a game of keep-away in the first half, taking a 17-0 lead as they tuned up for next week's wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants. "We had 33 yards at halftime,'' Martz said. "I was getting ready to check the paper to look for a job.'' Then the Rams rallied against a 49ers defense largely populated by second-teamers. "As a coach you want to keep playing, put the pedal to the metal so to speak,'' coach Steve Mariucci said. "Then there is the side of you, in the back of your mind, that says, 'Get these guys fresh and healthy and not produce any more injuries for the next game.''' Jamie Martin, who didn't start because of a bruised left knee that kept him out of three practices last week, hit Brandon Manumaleuna for a 6-yard touchdown pass and Isaac Bruce for a 26-yarder that cut the Rams' gap to three points with 7:09 to go. On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Bly put them over the top. Hearst's fumble with 2:51 to go, forced by Leonard Little and recovered by Dexter McCleon at the St. Louis 49, finished off the 49ers. Martin, who was 22-for-35 for 245 yards and a career-best three touchdowns, tacked on a 32-yard scoring pass to Ernie Conwell with 1:53 remaining to complete the comeback. Jeff Garcia opened the game by directing the NFL's longest-lasting drive of the year as the 49ers chewed up 12:07 on a 20-play, 81-yard march capped by Jeff Chandler's 19-yard field goal. Seldom-used backup quarterback Tim Rattay then took over, throwing touchdown passes of 2 and 27 yards to Tai Streets for a 17-0 halftime lead. The 49ers had the ball for almost two-thirds of the first half, 19:29 to 10:31 for the Rams, and outgained them 224-33. The opening drive surpassed one of 10:04 by the Jaguars in the opening week of the season. "It was fun,'' Rattay said. "It was good to get out there and move the ball.'' San Francisco dominated in the first half without two offensive linemen nursing minor ankle injuries, guard Ron Stone and tackle Derrick Deese. The 49ers also were without wide receiver Terrell Owens, who missed the last two games with a groin injury. The Rams, who had the NFL's No. 1 offense the last three seasons, produced only 33 total yards in the first half. A skittish Martz picked unknown third-stringer Scott Covington the starter on Saturday. But he stayed with Covington -- a Bengals castoff who has been with the team since October -- for only two ineffective series before going back to Martin. "He just got a little excited,'' Martz said. "He had a couple of plays called backwards that hurt us early in the game. Instead of making a bad situation worse and ruining it, I got Jamie in there.'' Covington disputed Martz' assessment. "A couple drives and I'm out, but it's his prerogative,'' Covington said. "I was comfortable with everything.'' Garcia converted four third downs in the marathon opening march before he threw the ball away on a third-and-goal from the Rams 1. The 49ers had to settle for Chandler's field goal. Streets' 2-yard catch capped a seven-play, 63-yard drive with 10:34 to go in the half. The third scoring drive was less time-consuming, three plays covering 70 yards and taking up only 1:24 capped by Streets' 27-yard reception with 3:02 left in the half. The Rams got 23 of their 33 first-half yards on two completions from Martin to Torry Holt near the end of the half. Martin was intercepted by Ronnie Heard at the 49ers 19 to end the brief threat with 10 seconds to go. Offensive tackle Orlando Pace returned to the Rams' lineup after missing three games with a pulled hamstring, but not for long. Pace left in the second quarter with possible torn cartilage in his right knee.
The 49ers' opening drive was their longest since a 20-play, 95-yard drive at Baltimore against the Colts on Dec. 3, 1961. ... Rattay entered the game 12-for-22 for 94 yards in three games, the last time on Nov. 25 against the Eagles. ... Rams WR-KR Terrence Wilkins was a healthy scratch the last three games and almost certainly won't be back. ... The 49ers' Andre Carter got his 12th sack, the most for the team since Chris Doleman had 15 in 1998. ... 49ers CB Jason Webster left with a sprained left ankle in the third quarter.
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