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49ers clinch NFC West title

  • Frank Gore is in a flag-waving mood as he celebrates the 49ers clinching their first playoff berth since 2002. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

SAN FRANCISCO — “We knew that we were facing a team that is looking to clinch the NFC West, so we knew we were going to get their best,” St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson said after his team had been dismantled, 26-0, by the 49ers on Sunday. “Hats off to them.”

Hats off? No, hats on. They were black baseball caps that read “2011 NFC Western Division Champions,” and many of the 49ers were wearing them after the game — even team owner John York as he exited the home locker room at Candlestick Park. It had been nine years since the Niners were able to don such glitzy headwear without committing fraud.

Improving to 10-2, San Francisco clinched its downtrodden division with four games to play, joining undefeated Green Bay as the only NFL teams officially in the playoffs. Except for long snapper Brian Jennings, no one on the 49ers' current roster had been here long enough to remember this team's most recent division title, in 2002.

“That's what we talked about all week: I want my hat, I want my shirt,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “You see it on TV. Till you actually get there and get it, it's a different story.”

It could scarcely have come easier than it did against the hapless Rams, a team that came into the game 2-9 and was without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, among other key players. They never made it past the 49ers' 36-yard line Sunday — and the one time they got that far, midway through the fourth quarter, they lost 13 yards in the next two plays and turned over the ball on downs.

This was the 49ers' first shutout since they blanked the Rams, 35-0, on Oct. 4, 2009.

For a while, the defensive stranglehold seemed crucial to the Niners' chances, because they had their own troubles cracking the end zone. They moved inside the St. Louis 25 on three separate occasions in the first half — even getting the ball at the 6-yard line following a fumble recovery by outside linebacker Aldon Smith — but settled for David Akers field goals each time.

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