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.
It was 9-0 at halftime, and the 49ers had gone seven quarters without scoring a touchdown.
They remedied that situation at the 11:14 mark of the third quarter, when Alex Smith fired a perfect deep pass down the middle of the field and Michael Crabtree took it in stride for a 52-yard touchdown, a step ahead of Rams cornerback Justin King.
It was San Francisco's longest pass play of the season — for about one quarter. With 12:42 remaining in the game, Kyle Williams took a short pass from Smith, sped out of cornerback Josh Gordy's attempted ankle tackle, and went 56 yards for the final points.
There was plenty of uneven play on offense for the 49ers. Davis dropped a certain touchdown pass in the end zone, Crabtree and tight end Justin Peelle also booted balls, and Smith missed Ted Ginn once when the speedster was wide open. The quarterback was sacked four times, twice by Rams defensive end Chris Long, who tormented right tackle Anthony Davis for much of the afternoon.
"I had a feeling that this would be a slow game for us," Vernon Davis said.