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Forty-niners rout Rams, clinch NFC West title

BY CAM INMAN, San Jose Mercury News Published: December 6, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO — Team owner John York happily emerged from the 49ers locker room wearing a "Division Champions" cap.

General manager Trent Baalke donned a similar souvenir as he modestly ducked out of Candlestick Park.

Quarterback Alex Smith may have worn that cap best, however, out of all the 49ers' embattled figures over the franchise's eight-season playoff drought.

"This isn't a fluke or anything like that," Smith said after the 49ers clinched the NFC West and a playoff berth by virtue of a 26-0 win over the St. Louis Rams.

The 49ers (10-2) rebounded from a Thanksgiving night loss at Baltimore with a dominant performance against the last-place Rams (2-10).

Individual milestones were set, both by Frank Gore (the 49ers' new all-time rushing leader) and David Akers (franchise-record 32 field goals this season).

One marquee individual, linebacker Patrick Willis, had to watch most of Sunday's game from the sideline because of a strained right hamstring.

But the Willis-less defense still managed to deliver its first shutout since a 35-0 rout of the Rams on Oct. 4, 2009.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said he "wanted to see how our team would come back after a tough loss on the road, and they responded like mighty men. It was a tremendous performance defensively, a real gem."

With that defense on the field during the two-minute warning, left tackle Joe Staley sneaked up on Harbaugh and tried dousing him with a Gatorade cooler. Harbaugh, exhibiting the peripheral vision from his 15-year career as an NFL quarterback, darted left to avoid a direct hit.

Did Jed York, the 49ers' president, expect such a quick playoff berth upon hiring Harbaugh away from Stanford in January, at the high cost of a five-year, $25 million contract?

"What we wanted to do was make sure our general manager and our head coach were on the same page, and make sure that trickles down," Jed York said. "I think that's where we are right now, but, again, there's a long way to go.

"We've hit our first milestone by winning the division, but there's a long way for us to go."

Harbaugh grouped himself Sunday among "us new guys" who felt especially glad for the long-toiling 49ers who've attempted to return one of the league's most prominent franchises to greatness, or at least the playoffs.

As for Baalke, he continued to shy away from any media spotlight, as has been the case since he took on the general manager role after last season's 6-10 campaign.

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