You had the feeling that sooner or later the 49ers would be good. They'd swallowed their medicine and taken their salary-cap hit; they'd gone about rebuilding the franchise in a sensible way, cramming the roster with as many promising youngsters as they could find. This was known as long-range planning, and you figured that around, oh, 2003 they'd be ready to make a move.
Somewhere along the line, though, they must have gotten their hands on some growth hormone, because they are on the threshold of their most important game since their days as a perennial playoff team, facing the mighty Rams for control of the NFC West. Lots of things had to fall into place for this to happen.
Nobody really believed in Garrison Hearst's comeback attempt from a serious ankle injury, but here he is, not merely a functional runner with speed but also one capable of carrying a ground game and imposing his will in a nasty way. The quarterback, Jeff Garcia, continues to play at an All-Pro level. The line has turned into one of the best run-blocking units in the game. The defense, if not overpowering, is active and can make plays. All of which has contributed to an NFL-best five-game winning streak, which the Niners will bring to St. Louis.
The teams met in September in a game filled with dropped passes, missed chances and hard feelings all around. Hearst went down with a concussion. Niners All-Pro defensive tackle Bryant Young suffered an ankle injury, courtesy of a crackback block by Rams right tackle Ryan Tucker. San Francisco receivers dropped seven passes, but the Rams were out of sync too, and they saved their four-point victory by getting the ball into Marshall Faulk's hands on eight straight plays to run out the clock.
Both teams are coming off comfortable wins. The 49ers' triumph over the Bills was never in doubt. St. Louis, on the other hand, was pushed hard by the Falcons for a half before getting its long-range guns working and putting the game away. The biggest thing the Rams have going for them on Sunday is that the game is at the St. Louis Speedway, where everything happens quickly. The Niners, though, can put up points too. They've averaged 31 a game over their last seven. Garcia is no stranger to shootout football, and he hasn't turned the ball over as often as Kurt Warner has this year.
On a hunch, I'll go for the upset and take San Francisco. Most of these Niners have never played in a game of this magnitude, and if they're not too psyched, they have a chance to stun the Rams early and force them to play from behind. The 49ers could then try to force turnovers, which have become a big headache for the Rams.
The Patriots are another team that has come of age. They spotted the Jets 13 points at the Meadowlands, switched gears in the second half and went to more open formations and quicker passes off a shorter drop, and pulled out the win. The week before, New England had beaten the Saints on sheer physical toughness. The Patriots have that playoff look, and I'll ride with 'em for another week, this time over Cleveland.
The Bears have strange ideas about catchup football. The last time they played Green Bay (and lost), they tried to rally with an array of dink passes. Of their last six completions, the longest was six yards. The Packers must have thought they were being attacked by gnats.—Maybe Chicago will open things up, as it did against the Bucs, but I doubt it. I'll take Green Bay.
The Giants squeaked by the Cowboys and their dynamic passing duo of Clint Stoerner and Ryan Leaf in overtime last month. Now New York has a chance to torment another guy, Quincy Carter. New quarterback, same result. Giants will make it 2 for 2. Atlanta has had the Saints' number for some time, but without quarterback Chris Chandler, who was knocked out of the St. Louis game with a sprained left ankle, I can't see the Falcons winning. New Orleans is the pick if Chandler can't go; I'll go the other way if he plays.
The Titans will keep their playoff hopes flickering against the Vikings. Ditto the Cardinals against the Redskins. The Steelers will wreak defensive havoc on the Jets, and the Dolphins will pull one out against the Colts.