SAN FRANCISCO -- The 49ers are bad. The 49ers are plodding. But the one thing you no longer can say about them after Sunday's 13-9 loss to St. Louis is that they're predictable.
Down by seven points and facing fourth and 10 with just 1:55 on the clock, Nolan sent in Joe Nedney to kick a 46-yard field goal instead of going for the first down and trying for a game-tying touchdown.
"Because it was fourth down and I had an opportunity to win the game," Nolan said afterward. "At that time ... I knew with three timeouts we'd get the ball back and would be playing for the win rather than the overtime."
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Nolan's strategy was to have Nedney hit the field goal and then go for an onside kick, something the 49ers have had success with in the past and a play they nearly converted a week ago in Seattle.
The field goal was good, but not the onside kick. It didn't travel far enough and was recovered by the Rams' Randy McMichael at the 39-yard line.
Armed with three timeouts, however, the 49ers' defense stuffed running back Steven Jackson for losses on first and second down and then forced the Rams to punt on fourth down. The 49ers took over at their own 11 -yard line with 1:28 left.
As was the case in their Game 1 win against Arizona, the 49ers' offense seemed to come alive only when in desperation mode.
Trent Dilfer, starting his third game for injured Alex Smith, hit Arnaz Battle on a critical third-down play and then connected with Frank Gore, Bryan Gilmore, and Vernon Davis on passes to bring the 49ers to the St. Louis 21 with three seconds left. The 49ers later complained that the officials allowed far too much time to tick off following Davis' catch.
The Rams were in two-deep coverage on the game's final play, and Dilfer said he tried to pump fake to create a hole somewhere in the defense. The Rams didn't bite.
Cornerback Oshiomogho Atogwe stepped in front of receiver Darrell Jackson for the interception and the win.
"It's a play in desperate situations through my career that I've had success with," Dilfer said. "It was either going to be a touchdown or an interception."
Jackson also was one of Dilfer's intended targets on the 49ers' penultimate offensive possession. Set up on the Rams' 28, Dilfer first tried to hit Vernon Davis at the goal line. The tight end seemed to have the ball in his grasp for a moment, but it slipped out as he hit the ground.
The pass to Jackson also was in the end zone and was even closer to becoming a touchdown. The ball, however, slipped through his hands.
"I was fully extended for it," said Jackson, who arrived from Seattle with a reputation for dropping passes. "It's a ball I normally would catch. It's my ball. ... Nine times out of 10, I come up with that."
The 49ers' late surge masked what until that point had been another putrid offensive performance. Andy Lee punted eight times -- St. Louis' Donnie Jones had nine punts -- and the 49ers were 3 of 14 on third downs.
They also squandered one of the best defensive performances of the season.
Led by Bryant Young's 2½ sacks, the 49ers got to quarterback Marc Bulger six times and held Bulger, who had 368 passing yards in their first meeting, to just 155 yards.
"If anything surprises me," Nolan said, "it's how well the other two phases (defense and special teams) have been and we still come away with the loss. It shows deficiencies on the other side of the ball."