ST. LOUIS -- Coach Jim Harbaugh was more feisty than usual after the 49ers' hold-on-for-dear-life 34-27 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.Sure, the victory wrapped up a 13-3 season. Sure, it clinched the much-coveted No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs for the 49ers.But it wasn't exactly a smooth ending for the NFC West champions, who withstood a 14-point flurry from the hapless Rams late in the fourth quarter to make the regular-season finale much more interesting than it should've been."I feel great," Harbaugh said through clenched teeth. "I'm not going to come in here and be sad that we won."The 49ers will return to action with a game at Candlestick Park in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs during the Jan. 14-15 weekend. But the 49ers weren't quite in the mood for a celebration after seeing their 21-point lead with 6:30 remaining in the game nearly disappear."It was a one-possession game with five minutes left and they had all their timeouts," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "It instantly went from, potentially, not going back into the game to game on the line, and we have to close it out."The 49ers eventually closed it out with third-string running back Anthony Dixon picking up 3 yards on a third-and-1 situation on the first play after the two-minute warning. Dixon gave the 49ers a 34-13 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.The Rams made it interesting when fill-in quarterback Kellen Clemens hit Brandon Lloyd on a 36-yard touchdown pass. The Rams recovered the ensuing onside kick, and scored 14 points within 13 seconds on after Tarell Brown's 35-yard pass interference penalty set up Cadillac Williams' 1-yard touchdown.Earlier in the game, Brown intercepted two passes that the 49ers turned into touchdowns.Smith had another solid game, as he completed 21 of 31 passes for 219 yards with a 28-yard scoring pass to Michael Crabtree. The 49ers played the entire second half without running back Frank Gore. Harbaugh indicated Gore had an injury, but Gore insisted he was fine."That was a great effort by Michael Crabtree," Harbaugh said. "He had a lot on his shoulders today."With receivers Ted Ginn (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) unavailable, the 49ers turned to Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis to carry the load in the passing game. Crabtree caught nine passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, while Davis had eight receptions for 118 yards.Brett Swain caught one pass for six yards, and Joe Hastings, who was activated from the practice squad on Saturday, was targeted once but did not catch a pass.
Crabtree's most notable play came when he caught kicker David Akers' pass on a fake field goal -- a play called "Sleeper" that special-teams coordinator Brad Seely designed. And it definitely caught the Rams sleeping.After being on the field for a failed third-down play, Crabtree was told before coming off the field that the fake field-goal play was on. He had to re-enter the playing field inside the numbers and then went back near the sideline at the line of scrimmage without the Rams spotting him before the next snap."We've been practicing it for about 10 weeks, " Harbaugh said. "He was in the previous play. He just had to do everything within the rules. He was in on the previous play, he had to come back inside the numbers. When he goes to the sideline, he can't go off in a group of people. He's got to line up on the line of scrimmage, shoulders facing the defense. He just went out there and lined up, and they didn't see him."Said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, "It's always covered. If we saw it, we'd call a timeout. But we didn't see it."Akers, who lined up for the apparent field goal, took the direct snap from Brian Jennings and then threw to a wide-open Crabtree for a 14-yard touchdown."We've been practicing that play, so we just ran it," Crabtree said. "I told him, 'Just throw the ball, and I got you.' That's what he did. It almost came up short, but I was able to run up under it."Said Akers, "You got to not give it away, and back up and make it look like we're going to attempt the kick. I looked over and Crab was wide open. I think I underthrew him, but he made a little slate in there and made it look real smooth for me."After his first career touchdown pass, Akers then kicked the extra point that broke the NFL record for most points in a season without a touchdown. Gary Anderson held the previous mark of 164 points in 1999. Akers finished the season with 166 points.The 49ers' offense made it into the record book, too. The 49ers finished the season without a turnover in the final 22 quarters -- a franchise-best streak. The 49ers' 10 turnovers for the season ties last year's New England Patriots for the NFL record for fewest giveaways.Smith finished the season with 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.The 49ers didn't start the game strong, and they didn't finish strong. But they did more than enough for the crucial victory.The Rams scored first on Clemens' 18-yard scoring run through the 49ers' defense. Then, Alex Smith scored on an impressive run of his own.Smith, who lined up in the shotgun formation, slipped to the ground while avoiding Rams defensive end Chris Long. But Smith popped back up. Tight end Justin Peelle leveled linebacker James Laurinaitis with a block while running back Frank Gore blocked Chris Chamberlain. Smith then dove inside the right pylon for the 8-yard scoring run to tie the game at 7-7.It says something about the current state of the 49ers, that nobody seemed overly happen with such a monumental victory. After all, the 49ers are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2002."The mentality of this team has just continued to change and change," Smith said. "When you have a team so committed as we are, you expect these types of things to happen."
Expectations have changed.