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When a Victory Feels Like a Defeat : 49ers: San Francisco is at a loss for positive words after playing down to Rams' level.


SAN FRANCISCO — As he finished dressing at his locker room stall, San Francisco safety Tim McDonald sounded like a guy whose team had just lost to the Rams.

"Mom said there would be days like this," he said. "This was a tough one. We'll bounce back from this."

Wait a minute. Check that scoreboard again. In case he missed it, it read: San Francisco 31, Rams 27.

McDonald and his 49er teammates ask to be excused for, well, playing to the 4-7 Rams' level Sunday at Candlestick Park. Coming off an emotional victory over Dallas last week, the 49ers had to resort to a comeback to beat the Rams for the ninth-consecutive time.

"We didn't beat up anybody (Sunday)," 49er quarterback Steve Young said. "But this is a great way to win. But we would have cursed ourselves if we lost this one."

They didn't because Young threw four touchdown passes, including three to Jerry Rice--the last an 18-yarder that gave the 49ers a 31-27 lead with 1:56 to play.

"The Rams came to play," said Rice, who caught a club-record 16 passes for 165 yards. "After they went up, 27-24, in the fourth quarter, our offense knew we had to do something because there was a lot of talk coming from their side.

"They felt like they had us, and they really started talking."

Talk from a frustrated team that has little or no chance for the playoffs and has lost by an average of 21 points in the past three meetings against the 49ers?

"We struggled a little with these guys," McDonald said. "We need to learn to play well every week. We have to remind ourselves that the Rams get paid to play each week, just like we do."

But not everyone on the 49er roster has grown accustomed to blowing out the Rams twice a year. Young's comeback reminded 49er left guard Jesse Sapolu of another Bay Area quarterback who made a living by beating the Rams with last-second comebacks. What was his name again . . . ?

"A game like this is good not just for the team and all that, but especially for Steve Young," Sapolu said. "Before Steve, I was snapping the ball to a guy named Joe Montana, and this was a Joe Montana kind of comeback."

The comeback almost never happened because the usually sure-handed Rice fumbled the ball away after catching a six-yard pass from Young with 6:07 left.

Ram linebacker Shane Conlan knocked the ball loose from Rice, and defensive end Gerald Robinson recovered it at the Rams' 23.

"Nobody panicked when Jerry fumbled the ball," offensive tackle Harris Barton said. "Hey, Jerry has made a lot of money for me over the years."

No need to panic, because the 49ers got the ball back less than a minute later when the Rams moved the ball two yards before punting.

Young engineered a 10-play, 67-yard drive that culminated with the pass to Rice.

"I saw Jerry catch the ball, and I thought what a perfect scenario that was after he fumbled earlier," Sapolu said. "When you're a great player like him, sometimes things go your way."

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