49ers 23, Rams 20, OT

After getting back into the NFC West race with two gutsy
performances by their new starting quarterback, the San Francisco
49ers think they’ve finally found the right Smith for the job.

Joe Nedney kicked a 29-yard field goal with 9:38 left in
overtime, and Troy Smith passed for 356 yards while leading two
late scoring drives in the 49ers’ 23-20 victory over the St. Louis
Rams on Sunday.

Smith earned his second straight victory as a starter for the
49ers (3-6), throwing a go-ahead 16-yard touchdown pass to Michael
Crabtree with 2:10 left in regulation before leading the winning
drive in OT.

Although he realizes he won’t remind anybody of Joe Montana or
Steve Young just yet, Ohio State’s former Heisman Trophy winner is
thriving in place of Alex Smith, who’s out with a separated left
shoulder.

”When you’re part of a team that has nothing but a winning
tradition, you want to keep that going as a quarterback,” Troy
Smith said, overlooking the 49ers’ current seven-year absence from
the playoffs. ”There’s too many tremendous athletes here to not
share, for everybody to not have the opportunity to make a play.
It’s on me for distribution.”

With agility, mental resilience and a knack for making
on-the-move throws into St. Louis’ porous secondary, Smith started
slowly but went 17 for 28. He also outplayed Rams rookie Sam
Bradford in the first NFL meeting of Heisman-winning quarterbacks
since Carson Palmer and Vinny Testaverde faced off six years
ago.

Nobody will get any trophies after this often-ugly game – but
thanks to their division’s profound mediocrity, San Francisco is
back in the chase for its first playoff berth since 2002, just two
games behind leader Seattle. St. Louis fell a game back of first
place after losing on the road for the 20th time in 22 games.

”Somehow we’ve got to find that killer instinct,” said
Bradford, who went 30 of 42 for 251 yards and a touchdown in his
fourth road loss. ”We have to be able to put teams away when the
game is on the line.”

The 49ers overcame 14 penalties – including two that wiped out
fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Crabtree and Vernon Davis – and
the late loss of starting left tackle Joe Staley to a broken leg
with outstanding drives on their final two possessions. St. Louis
couldn’t stop Smith from leading a 76-yard march for Crabtree’s
catch, followed by a 55-yard drive for Nedney’s winner.

Coach Mike Singletary wouldn’t pick his starter for next week,
but it’s fairly clear Troy Smith energizes his teammates in ways
Alex Smith hasn’t mastered.

”When we go out there, it’s just like we’re little kids,” said
Gore, who rushed for 87 yards and caught three passes for 67 more,
including a pivotal fourth-down reception during the final
regulation drive. ”It feels good, because going back to the first
eight games, something was always going wrong for us.”

After Bradford and Steven Jackson led the Rams (4-5) back for
Josh Brown’s 33-yard field goal on the final snap of regulation,
St. Louis couldn’t get a first down after winning the overtime coin
toss.

Smith swiftly moved the 49ers 55 yards, converting on third down
for the first time in the game when St. Louis’ Oshiomogho Atogwe
was called for a 22-yard pass interference penalty.

Nedney then made his third field goal despite injuring his leg
on the opening kickoff of San Francisco’s fifth straight win over
St. Louis.

Danny Amendola caught an early TD pass for St. Louis, which went
ahead 17-10 late in the third quarter on Jackson’s 13-yard TD run
through traffic. Jackson rushed for 81 yards and made a tough
25-yard catch to set up the tying field goal for the Rams, who have
lost seven straight road games.

”Stick together. Everyone stick together,” Jackson said.
”Everyone trust in what we’re trying to get done, what we’re
trying to establish here. We have seven games to go. Although this
is a tough one to swallow … we’re still in the middle of
things.”

Gore caught two big passes on the 49ers’ 76-yard go-ahead drive
in the final minutes of regulation, including an inexplicably
wide-open 23-yard reception on fourth-and-18 when a stop would have
finished it for St. Louis.

”Nothing more frustrating,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
”You never relax, but a good quarterback got it to a good back
twice. There’s no excuse for that. Really, that can’t happen.”

Notes: Staley was on crutches after the game. He broke his left
fibula. … A first-quarter penalty also erased a long interception
return by San Francisco CB Nate Clements. … St. Louis also lost
LT Rodger Saffold to an ankle injury in the first half, but
Spagnuolo didn’t think the injury would be a long-term problem.