On paper, the script for Monday night’s matchup between the 49ers and Rams seemed clear: The Niners’ powerful running game would roll right over host St. Louis, which hasn’t been able to stop the run this season.
Yet when the Rams jumped off to a surprising 14-0 lead, the script changed. The 49ers went to the air with devastating results, storming back for a 31-17 victory -- San Francisco’s third straight.
Same end result. The 49ers just took a different route.
The 49ers now are 4-2 and very much in the thick of the race in the NFC West, sandwiched between the 4-1 Cardinals and 3-2 Seahawks.
The game began with the 49ers offense out of sync. The running game was hitting a brick wall, and the team’s first three possessions ended with punts. St. Louis, meanwhile, marched to two first-quarter scores for a 14-0 lead.
The game’s turning point came just before halftime, after the 49ers had closed the gap to 14-3 on a 54-yard Phil Dawson field goal.
With just 27 seconds remaining before halftime and the 49ers on their own 20-yard line, veteran wide receiver Brandon Lloyd’s out-and-up move left cornerback Janoris Jenkins temporarily befuddled – and Lloyd wide open.
Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick then rifled a perfect pass, hitting Lloyd in full stride, allowing Lloyd to sprint 80 yards. The touchdown closed the gap at halftime to just 14-10 and gave San Francisco momentum entering the second half.
San Francisco scored on two of its first three possessions of the third quarter, first on an 11-yard pass to Anquan Boldin to cap a 13-play drive, and then on a 32-yard bullet from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree for 32 yards to end a seven-play drive.
Just like that, San Francisco was up 24-14 going into the fourth quarter.
The key was Kaepernick and his receivers. Kaepernick completed 22-of-36 passes for 343 yards and the three touchdowns. He also ran for 37 yards. It was the first time this season he’s gone over 300 yards passing – but it’s not surprising the way he’s been playing of late.
In his three previous games, Kaepernick has been efficient, throwing for four TDs with just one interception, and Rams veteran linebacker James Laurinaitis had watched the film and said Kaepernick had grown significantly since last season.
No longer is he just a one- or two-read quarterback, he said.
"He seems to be finding the third read better than he has in the past," Laurinaitis said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. "Before you could say he was going to one read, maybe two, and if not, he’s taking off.” In short, "He’s grown a little bit," he said.
On Monday night, the older, wiser Kaepernick led his team back from a rough start, and the defense – though having to play without linebacker Patrick Willis, who had to leave the game because of an injury – settled down.
The Rams kept things interesting by stopping the 49ers on a fourth-and-goal play late, then driving for a field goal. Later they had one last possession to try to get a tie, but a 20-yard interception return for a TD by rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson put the game on ice.
The 49ers now face perhaps their biggest test yet, having to go to Denver this coming Sunday to face the defending AFC-champion Broncos.