San Francisco (5-5) at St. Louis (4-6)
November 23, 2006 8:26pm CST
The San Francisco 49ers are moving into position for an unlikely run to the playoffs. They'll try to win their fourth straight and sweep the fading St. Louis Rams for the second consecutive season when the NFC West rivals meet at the Edward Jones Dome. San Francisco (5-5) hardly looked like a playoff team after a 41-10 loss at Chicago on Oct. 29. But the 49ers, who haven't had a winning season since 2002, have been revitalized this month with wins over Minnesota, Detroit and Seattle. They held on to beat the Seahawks 20-14 last week to move within one game of the defending NFC champions for first place in the West. The 49ers also get another shot against the Seahawks on Dec. 14. Coach Mike Nolan still doesn't want to talk about the possibility of making the postseason. "I'm not there yet," he said. "Our goal starting out this season was not just to win five games. We've won five, but that's not our goal. ... We talk about streaks. We've got a three-game streak, and we need to build on that." The 49ers haven't swept St. Louis (4-6) in consecutive seasons since winning 17 straight meetings from 1990-98. San Francisco had lost 10 of 12 in the series before winning both matchups last year. The Rams have lost five straight after a 4-1 start in which their only loss came at San Francisco. Frank Gore scored on a 32-yard run and Alex Smith threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant to rally the 49ers to a 20-13 home victory over the Rams on Sept. 17. Bryant was arrested Sunday night on reckless and drunken driving charges after his Lamborghini was seen speeding faster than 100 mph on a freeway. He has only six receptions during the Niners' winning streak. Gore has turned in back-to-back huge performances to spearhead the team's surge. The second-year pro rushed for 159 yards on 22 carries in a 19-13 victory at Detroit on Nov. 12, and ran 24 times for a franchise-record 212 yards in the win over Seattle. Gore has flourished running behind left tackle Jonas Jennings and left guard Larry Allen, two of the Niners' key free-agent signings. "It's just fun to be playing when the team is flowing like that," Jennings said. "There's nonverbal communication between me and Larry. We know what's going to happen. We can run on anybody. That's just part of our formula, and we believe in Frank." The Niners are 5-0 when Gore has at least 19 carries. He leads the NFC with 1,043 rushing yards, including 127 on 29 carries in the first meeting with the Rams. St. Louis owns the worst run defense in the NFC, allowing 153.2 yards per game. The Rams looked like contenders before their current slide. They turned in possibly their poorest performances of the season in a 15-0 loss at Carolina last week. St. Louis set season lows in first downs (eight), total yards (111) and time of possession (21:17) while giving up a season-high seven sacks in its first shutout loss since Oct. 18, 1998. "It starts with me to get the team prepared better," Rams coach Scott Linehan said. "I take exception to how we played. We should take exception to playing like we played." Linehan has drawn criticism for abandoning the run after St. Louis rushed a season-low eight times compared to 41 passing plays last week. The Rams are producing only 94.4 rushing yards per game, among the worst in the NFC. "We weren't on the field long enough to establish a mix that you need to have to run the football," Linehan said. Steven Jackson hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since Week 2. He had at least 22 rushing attempts in each of the Rams' first five games, but has averaged 16.4 carries over the past five. One problem with the running game is the banged-up state of the offensive line. The Rams lost perennial Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace to a season-ending triceps injury after center Andy McCollum was lost early in the year to a torn ACL. "It's a factor, but we have to move on," Linehan said. "We need to keep finding more and more ways to adjust. We can sit around and lament the fact that we don't have him, or we can go out, get better, and find ways to get it done. "That's what we're going to do." The Rams haven't lost six straight since an eight-game slide from Sept. 28-Nov. 23, 1997.