Although they’ve had to work their way through distractions and numerous injuries, the San Francisco 49ers appeared to have things turned around before stumbling in Denver.
Coming off their bye week, the 49ers will try to regroup with star linebacker Patrick Willis expected back Sunday when they try to beat the injury-ravaged St. Louis Rams for the second time in four weeks.
San Francisco (4-3) has its sights set on returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, but the squad has had to deal with the loss of some key players and other off-field issues while trying to move past a 1-2 start.
Defensive lineman Ray McDonald has played through domestic violence allegations, though linebacker Aldon Smith is serving a nine-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
More recently, reports surfaced that the players might not be on the same page with fourth-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
"You take things with a grain of salt," Harbaugh said, "especially from people that don’t know you or have some other agenda that they may be serving. I take it with a grain of salt and go about doing our jobs."
The 49ers seemed to be doing just that with three consecutive victories to move a game behind NFC West-leading Arizona (6-1) before running into an offensive juggernaut against the Broncos on Oct. 19.
After limiting opponents to an average of 18.3 points during its winning streak, San Francisco allowed its highest point total since Dec. 23, 2012, in a 42-17 defeat. Peyton Manning also burned the club for 318 yards and four touchdowns, including his 509th career scoring strike to surpass Brett Favre for the all-time record.
With a week off to heal, the 49ers are hoping to welcome back Willis, who did not play due to a strained toe, and rookie cornerback Jimmie Ward from a quadriceps injury.
Offensive lineman Mike Iupati and defensive back Chris Culliver are also on target to return from concussions.
"The back end of the season," said running back Marcus Lattimore, nearing a return from a knee injury that has cost him his first two seasons. "Aldon, (nose tackle) Glenn Dorsey, a bunch of weapons coming out. We plan on making a big run."
San Francisco, however, will have to overcome another loss after center Daniel Kilgore’s season ended in Denver with a fractured left ankle. Marcus Martin, a 20-year-old rookie, is the favorite to fill in. That may not bode well for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was sacked a career high-tying six times.
He’s looking to replicate his performance against the Rams on Oct. 13 when he wasn’t sacked while completing 22 of 35 passes for a season-high 343 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 road victory. Kaepernick has connected on 65.3 percent of his throws for six touchdowns and no picks in four starts versus St. Louis.
San Francisco would like to get the ground game back on track after totaling 151 rushing yards in its last two games. The Rams have struggled against the run, allowing 314 yards since limiting the 49ers to 89.
A week after snapping a three-game skid with a 28-26 home win over defending champion Seattle, last-place St. Louis (2-5) was throttled in Sunday’s 34-7 loss at Kansas City.
Austin Davis was sacked seven times while going 15 of 25 for 160 yards with a touchdown and an interception for the Rams, who finished with a season-low 200 total yards. Running back Zac Stacy had a team-high three catches.
Davis also struggled three weeks ago against the 49ers, completing 21 of 42 passes for 236 yards with a score and a pick.
Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta each had two of San Francisco’s five sacks, while Dontae Johnson returned an interception 20 yards for the clinching score with 53 seconds left.
Now the Rams will be even more vulnerable up front without Jake Long after the four-time Pro Bowl tackle tore the same ACL on Sunday that prematurely ended his 2013 season.
"He was strong, he was stout, he was playing well," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It’s just very unfortunate."
Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick, is slated to receive his first dose of extended duty, while injuries to Roger Saffold (shoulder) and Scott Wells (elbow) also have thrust Barrett Jones in at center.
The Rams made a move to bolster their defense Tuesday, acquiring safety Mark Barron from Tampa Bay for two draft picks. Barron, the seventh selection in the 2012 draft, has 48 tackles and three passes defensed this season.
The team also elevated linebacker Korey Toomer and offensive lineman Brandon Washington to the active roster.
St. Louis lost another playmaker Sunday when Brian Quick suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. He’s the squad’s second-leading receiver with 25 catches to go with a team-high 375 yards.
The Rams have gone 5-17-1 in San Francisco since 1991 and haven’t won on the road in the series since 2007.