It took three weeks and almost 150 minutes of football, but a winner was finally declared in the 10-quarter-long grudge match between the St Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers. And Jeff Fisher's Rams, bloodied and wearied after this heavyweight battle more than went the distance, have their clenched fists up in the air after a 16-13 decision.
This was no knockout, but after having our team laid out flat on the canvas time and time again in this rivalry - a rivalry in name only until this season - a tie feels almost like a win, and a win feels almost trophy worthy. Rams fans can hold their heads up a little higher now, holders of all the bragging rights in the division right now despite a 5-6-1 record that has us all but eliminated from playoff consideration.
Hell. Playoffs? Who said anything about playoffs?
We might be talking about them early and often next season, if the team's current trajectory continues on its current path. Jeff Fisher is putting his stamp on this team, and Rams fans played witness to the first true "Jeff Fisher win." This was a win earned on defense, a commitment to getting tough yardage, out-preparing and then simply wearing down a superior opponent. And to make it sweeter, it was a win witnessed by the old heads of the Rams' past, in town to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the team's founding.
Really big step for @stlouisrams they can play with the elite— Jack Youngblood (@theblood85) December 2, 2012
Having seen this game first-hand, it did not feel like a game we were going to win. Not early on, as the 49ers out-physicaled the Rams and completely took away our run game. It looked like they had learned more from our first meeting than we had, and had made the necessary corrections. Our defense kept making stops after spotting the Niners a 7-0 lead, but our offense kept squandering them.
At the half, the Danny Amendola-less Rams had a mere 4 first downs and 85 yards of offense. Jackson had all of 11 yards rushing on 8 carries, and they hadn't converted a single first down. Play-calling was a mess as well, as the team intentionally sacrified easy makes on third-and-short for high-risk, no-reward shots down the field. Sure, I like taking shots when they're there, but these weren't and the faulty strategy put the onus on rookie punter Johnny Hekker to balance out the field position game.
It didn't work. The Niners had only one drive start inside their own 25 yard line in the first half, while our offense's every series started at or inside our own 20. It is a testament to our defense - particularly a defensive front led by a pair of unlikelies in William Hayes and Eugene Sims - that the score was only 7-0 at the break.
Our offense made its adjustments with a two-minute drive to finish the first half, but the drive came up empty as Greg Zuerlein couldn't corral his own booming 58-yard field goal try. The rookie appeared to have ghosts in his head, having made only one of his past five field goals to that point.
He was just one of several potential goats the Rams had to choose from, if they were going to go ahead and lose this game. But nearly every one of those goats came back to redeem himself in the second half and the extra period.
The offense again got nothing out of a scoring opportunity to start the third quarter - this time on a trip deep inside the 49ers' ten yard line. Jeff Fisher made a questionable decision to go for a 4th and 2 from the 4 yard line, and Brian Schottenheimer compounded the question by subbing out Steven Jackson for Isaiah Pead on the play. The threat of the run removed, all Bradford had left was a very low-percentage play to the back corner of the end zone that fell incomplete despite a well-placed ball.
So once again, the Rams needed their defense to deliver a spark, and once again Janoris Jenkins was the man who delivered it. The electric rookie CB blazed a path to Colin Kaepernick on a corner blitz, flushing the 49ers QB into his own end zone and into a poor decision to throw the ball away. The intentional grounding penalty put two points on the board for the Rams, and lit up the home crowd for the first time.
Jenkins - who else? - again delivered where his offense could not, putting a touchdown on the board on a lightning-quick recovery of a ridiculous backwards option pass from Kaepernick to Ted Ginn on a third and very makeable down.
Having put zero points to their own cause, now the Rams had to get two on the board to tie the game at 10 deep in the 4th quarter. Of course, they had to take a step backwards - thank you Rodger Saffold - before they could take a step forward - no seriously, THANK YOU Lance Kendricks.
At this point, the Rams and their crowd were fully in the game. What happened next I can barely describe.
Another exchange of clutch drives ending in must-make field goals, including a redemptive game-tier from Zuerlein that traveled half the length of the football field. Another set of mystifying play-calls from Jim Harbaugh, another awful shank punt from Johnny Hekker, another missed game-winner for 49ers kicker David Akers, and another final chance for Zuerlein to win the game.
It was that, or be the first pair of teams since 1963 to tie each other twice in a season.
Greg The Leg saved us from that fate with a kick that was straight and true and might have been good from 65 yards. As soon as the ball left his foot, I could tell from my seat that he had the distance. And as the ball sailed on, the fans in the end zone launched ecstatically out of their seats and I knew the kick was true. With no time outs left, Jim Harbaugh had no chance to ice the kicker, so barring something crazy like a delay of game penalty - and when has that ever happened on a field goal try - this game was going to be won by the Rams.
Somehow. Some way. I just recounted it, but I'll be damned if I can explain it. All I know is, wrecked voice and all, I'm going to enjoy it for a long time to come.