Jeff Garcia was the quarterback, his favorite target was Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst was the main man on the rushing attack and Steve Mariucci was the coach the last time the 49ers accomplished what they did Sunday at Candlestick Park.
The year was 2002 when the 49ers last won the NFC West championship and went to the playoffs. Since then, it’s been a long drought with far more downs than ups.
But Sunday, the Niners of 2011 clinched the NFC West title with a 26-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams – with still four games to go in the regular season.
Jim Harbaugh, in his first season as 49ers head coach, got a Gatorade bath in the closing moments of the game as San Francisco locked up the title and improved its record to 10-2.
It was a big day for the 49ers, who not only became the second team in the NFL to clinch a playoff spot (behind the Packers) but also watched Frank Gore become the franchise leader in rushing yards. Gore, in his seventh season, rushed for 73 yards against the Rams and passed Hall of Famer Joe Perry as the team’s all-time yardage leader on the ground.
In addition, quarterback Alex Smith completed 17-of-23 passes for 274 yards and two TDs without an interception, compiling a career-best passer rating of 142.3 for the game.
In the second half, Smith had a 52-yard TD throw to Michael Crabtree and a 56-yard scoring strike to Kyle Williams.
David Akers also kicked four field goals – from 36, 19, 28 and 34 yards – for the Niners, who moved the ball but still struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone.
San Francisco out-gained St. Louis 389-157 and once again won the turnover battle, 2-0, over a Rams team that was missing injured starting quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford was replaced by A.J. Feeley, who completed 12-of-22 passes for 156 yards with an interception.
The 49ers, who next face the Cardinals in Arizona Sunday, may be without standout linebacker Patrick Willis for a while, however.
Willis suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game.
Still, the 49ers were able to shut out an opponent for the first time since Oct. 4, 2009, when they beat St. Louis 35-0.
Before the game, 49ers owner John York contemplated the team’s impending NFC West championship. “It’s fun. If I’d known it was this much fun we would have done it 10 years ago,” he told the Associated Press.
Added York: “It’s been absolutely exciting, wonderful. We’re very pleased with the way the players have performed, Coach Harbaugh and his coaching staff, and everything that Trent Baalke has done with bringing players both in the draft and free agency. Trent took some shots about no big names (added to the secondary). Nobody’s complaining about the defensive backs now.”
Though the 49ers have clinched a playoff berth, there is still more work to be done. At 10-2, San Francisco over the next four games also can clinch the No. 2 NFC playoff seed and a first-round bye.