49ers beat Rams, clinch NFC West

SAN FRANCISCO — Jim Harbaugh delivered exactly what the San Francisco 49ers hired him for back in January: a playoff berth and NFC West title in his first season running the show. So much for the lockout slowing him down.

Left tackle Joe Staley delivered the celebratory Gatordade dousing on Harbaugh's head in the closing moments of Sunday's 26-0 win over the St. Louis Rams that wrapped up that long-awaited division title for a once-proud franchise determined to return to the glory days of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, Steve Young and Roger Craig.

Frank Gore helped run San Francisco (10-2) right into the postseason, becoming the 49ers' career rushing leader by passing late Hall of Famer Joe Perry and finishing with 73 yards.

Alex Smith threw second-half touchdowns of 52 and 56 yards to Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams and David Akers kicked four field goals to help Harbaugh join George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997) as the only rookie coaches in franchise history to win the division.

The only downer came when star linebacker Patrick Willis left the game in the first half with a right hamstring injury.

Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley struggled in place of injured starter Sam Bradford for the reeling Rams (2-10), who watched several more key players go down.

San Francisco became the NFL's second team to secure a playoff berth behind defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

The 49ers bounced back from a discouraging 16-6 loss at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night against the Ravens and Harbaugh's big brother, John, with another methodical victory. Smith was sacked nine times in that game and four more Sunday.

Despite further problems converting in the red zone early, San Francisco shut out an opponent for the first time since a 35-0 home win at Candlestick Park on Oct. 4, 2009. That was also the Rams' last shutout.

The Niners also avenged a late-season loss from 2010 that was still plenty fresh. They had won five straight before losing at St. Louis in the second-to-last week. It was after that game when coach Mike Singletary was fired. That led to the high-profile hiring of Harbaugh in January. And the 49ers' transformation began in earnest.

San Francisco's impressive season might help shed that “NFC Worst” stigma from the West.

Smith, who didn't start that last game against the Rams, completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with four sacks and no interceptions to finish with a career-high 142.3 quarterback rating. He gave way to rookie backup Colin Kaepernick midway through the fourth.

Gore ran for 2 yards early in the second quarter to give him 7,345 career yards rushing, moving him past Perry (7,344) for most in franchise history.

The 28-year-old Gore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his seventh NFL season, has said it was a goal for this season to become the career rushing leader — though getting to the playoffs for the first time has always been the top priority.

Same for Smith, Vernon Davis, Willis and all the others who haven't played on the NFL's big stage before.

Gore and his teammates are wearing No. 34 helmet decals this season in honor of Perry, the first player with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and nicknamed “The Jet” for his sensational speed. He died in April at age 84.

Willis watched the second half on the sideline in a sweatsuit.

The four-time Pro Bowler landed awkwardly after missing a tackle on fullback Brit Miller, who made an 18-yard completion from A.J. Feeley with 4:28 left in the first quarter. Willis' body twisted as he fell to the ground at Candlestick Park and he stayed down for a short time as trainers ran out to check on him, then helped him limp off the field.

Akers kicked a 36-yard field goal on San Francisco's second possession of the game to go up 3-0 with 4:54 left in the first quarter.

Ray McDonald knocked the ball away from Feeley midway through the second quarter to force a fumble and Aldon Smith recovered deep in St. Louis territory. That gave the 49ers first-and-goal on the 6 but they again failed to get in the end zone, settling for Akers' 19-yard field goal.

Akers booted a 28-yarder 1:41 before halftime for his 31st field goal of the year, topping Jeff Wilkins' single-season franchise mark of 30 he set in 1996.

That gave the 49ers nine field goals — with only three TDs — in the last 14 trips to the red zone before Crabtree's TD catch.

Davis dropped a would-be 40-yard touchdown catch in the end zone late in the second quarter on a perfectly thrown pass from Smith. Davis later had a catch and fumble for San Francisco, which hasn't scored a first-half touchdown since Week 9 at Washington.

Rams DE Chris Long's second-quarter sack on Smith gave him one in six straight games.

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