SAN FRANCISCO – Jim Harbaugh, who last week said that December football is “only for the tough,” on Sunday watched his team usher in the new month with a rough, gritty – and in the words of one 49ers player, “chippy” – win against a division rival.
The 23-13 victory over the Rams featured 20 penalties, one big injury to left tackle Joe Staley and another inspired performance from Anquan Boldin. The veteran receiver caught nine passes for 98 yards – his most prolific game since Week 1 – and again was quarterback Colin Kaepernick's favorite target, especially on third downs.
In this contest, however, Kaepernick had another legitimate target on the other side of the formation.
Michael Crabtree's 60-yard catch and run, which came on third down in the third quarter, was one of the highlights of the game and sent a message that the 49ers weren't merely a one-wide receiver team anymore.
Crabtree, making his 2013 debut, eventually was pulled down by a Rams safety at the St. Louis' 20-yard line, which earned him some ribbing from teammates after the game.
Boldin suggested that Crabtree's surgically repaired Achilles' wasn't to blame for being caught from behind.
“We'll give him a pass on that one,” he said with a smile. “Thanksgiving was this week.”
Replied Crabtree, who shared the post-game podium with Boldin and Kaepernick: “He's the one that fed me all the turkey.”
Like nearly every 49ers opponent this year, the Rams concentrated on taking away San Francisco's running game. Frank Gore averaged just 2.8 yards a carry and finished with 42 rushing yards. The 49ers had 83 yards on the ground as a team.
But Kaepernick had his second straight strong outing in throwing for 275 yards – like Boldin, his best effort since the first game of the season – and finished with a 111.5 passer rating. He targeted Boldin five times on third down in the first half and came up with first downs each time.
Two of the first downs came via Rams penalties against Boldin, and he and St. Louis cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins or Trumaine Johnson seemed to battle on every play no matter whether the ball came their way or not.
“That's the way I like to play,” Boldin said. “If you want to play physical with me and do all of that, I'm all for it. Just be prepared to get knocked around a little bit.”
The Rams also had to contend with tight end Vernon Davis, who opened the game by high-hurdling a Rams defender on his way to a 20-yard gain and then did the same in the fourth quarter.
On that play, Kaepernick drifted to his right on a naked bootleg before finding Davis to his inside. The tight end took off toward the goal line and then leaped over the only man between him and the end zone, the Rams' Jenkins.
The touchdown, Davis' team-leading 10th of the season, sealed the win for San Francisco.
“Over pretty much my whole career, any time I get the ball in my hands defenders are coming for my knees and ankles and things like that,” Davis said. “But it was just at the moment. At that moment, I said, 'I'm going to jump over that guy.'”
The 49ers have gotten back on track against the Redskins and Rams, both of which have losing records. The true test will come on Sunday against the division-leading Seahawks, who have handed the 49ers two straight lopsided defeats, both in Seattle.
The 49ers will have to contend with Seattle's formidable defense without Staley, who will miss at least one game with a knee injury. But with Davis, Boldin and now Crabtree, they'll have more versatility – and more toughness – in the passing game than they had during previous encounters.
“I don't think we're playing at our top level,” Boldin said. “I don't think we've played our best football yet. I still think we have some things that we have to clean up. We're not where we expect to be.”