When Jim Harbaugh was introduced as the new coach of the San Francisco 49ers in January, he knew the facts.
He was inheriting a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002 and had gone through a carousel of coaches, with each coach failing to deliver as promised.
Yet Harbaugh, who built winning college programs at the University of San Diego and Stanford, brought an unabashed confidence, a history as a fierce competitor from his days as an NFL quarterback and a desire to rebuild the Niners into what they once were, one of the best franchises in the NFL.
“All obstacles must be overcome,” he said at his first news conference. “Losing is not an option.” Harbaugh went on to say that making the Niners a winner again would be the “perfect competitive challenge.”
In introducing his new coach, General Manager Trent Baalke said Harbaugh’s hiring would signal the “start of a new generation.”
On Sunday, as the NFC West-champion 49ers closed out a 13-3 season by holding on to top the host St. Louis Rams 34-27, San Francisco not only completed its one-season resurrection under Harbaugh – proving Baalke’s words prophetic -- but locked up the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.
The Niners entered Sunday’s regular-season finale needing just a win over the Rams to clinch the second seed. Though the Saints (who also won Sunday) and 49ers finish with identical records, the 49ers held the tiebreaker to give them next weekend off before hosting a game the weekend of Jan. 14-15.
Sunday’s victory over the Rams turned out to be more difficult than it first appeared it would be. The Niners jumped out to a 20-7 halftime lead, then surged to a 34-13 lead in the fourth quarter before the Rams rallied with two late TDs to make it close.
The Rams even had the ball late in the game with a chance to tie it with Kellen Clemens driving St. Louis to the 49ers’ 33-yard line with under three minutes to go. But Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman sacked Clemens and knocked him out of the game at the 2:52 mark, and backup quarterback Tom Brandstater’s third- and fourth-down passes were incomplete, turning the ball back to San Francisco, which ran out the clock and locked up the seven-point victory.
Harbaugh became just the fourth rookie head coach in NFL history to win 13 or more games, and is the first to accomplish the feat after inheriting a team coming off a losing season, reported Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sportsnet.
Alex Smith completed 21-of-31 passes for 219 yards and a TD (and no interceptions, once again), and had big days with tight end Vernon Davis (eight catches, 118 yards) and Michael Crabtree (nine catches, 92 yards and the first two-TD game of his career).
Only one of Crabtree’s catches, however, came courtesy of Smith. He caught a 14-yard TD pass from kicker David Akers on a fake field-goal play that gave San Francisco a 27-7 lead in the third quarter.
Kendall Hunter led the Niners in rushing with 76 yards and a TD on 16 carries (as No. 1 back Frank Gore was given the second half off).
San Francisco wrapped up its season with a plus-28 turnover margin, the second-best total in the NFL since 1970, and didn’t commit a turnover over its final 22 quarters of the regular season.
Niners standout linebacker Patrick Willis returned after missing three games and had three tackles.