SAN FRANCISCO — After getting back into the NFC West race with two gutsy performances by their new starting quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers think they've finally found the right Smith for the job.
Joe Nedney kicked a 29-yard field goal with 9:38 left in overtime, and Troy Smith passed for 356 yards while leading two late scoring drives in the 49ers' 23-20 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
Smith earned his second straight victory as a starter for the 49ers (3-6), throwing a go-ahead 16-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree with 2:10 left in regulation before leading the winning drive in OT.
Although he realizes he won't remind anybody of Joe Montana or Steve Young just yet, Ohio State's former Heisman Trophy winner is thriving in place of Alex Smith, who's out with a separated left shoulder.
"When you're part of a team that has nothing but a winning tradition, you want to keep that going as a quarterback," Troy Smith said, overlooking the 49ers' current seven-year absence from the playoffs. "There's too many tremendous athletes here to not share, for everybody to not have the opportunity to make a play. It's on me for distribution."
With agility, mental resilience and a knack for making on-the-move throws into St. Louis' porous secondary, Smith started slowly but went 17 for 28. He also outplayed Rams rookie Sam Bradford in the first NFL meeting of Heisman-winning quarterbacks since Carson Palmer and Vinny Testaverde faced off six years ago.
Nobody will get any trophies after this often-ugly game — but thanks to their division's profound mediocrity, San Francisco is back in the chase for its first playoff berth since 2002, just two games behind leader Seattle. St. Louis fell a game back of first place after losing on the road for the 20th time in 22 games.
"Somehow we've got to find that killer instinct," said Bradford, who went 30 of 42 for 251 yards and a touchdown in his fourth road loss. "We have to be able to put teams away when the game is on the line."
The 49ers overcame 14 penalties — including two that wiped out fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Crabtree and Vernon Davis — and the late loss of starting left tackle Joe Staley to a broken leg with outstanding drives on their final two possessions. St. Louis couldn't stop Smith from leading a 76-yard march for Crabtree's catch, followed by a 55-yard drive for Nedney's winner.
Coach Mike Singletary wouldn't pick his starter for next week, but it's fairly clear Troy Smith energizes his teammates in ways Alex Smith hasn't mastered.
"When we go out there, it's just like we're little kids," said Gore, who rushed for 87 yards and caught three passes for 67 more, including a pivotal fourth-down reception during the final regulation drive. "It feels good, because going back to the first eight games, something was always going wrong for us."
After Bradford and Steven Jackson led the Rams (4-5) back for Josh Brown's 33-yard field goal on the final snap of regulation, St. Louis couldn't get a first down after winning the overtime coin toss.
Smith swiftly moved the 49ers 55 yards, converting on third down for the first time in the game when St. Louis' Oshiomogho Atogwe was called for a 22-yard pass interference penalty.
Nedney then made his third field goal despite injuring his leg on the opening kickoff of San Francisco's fifth straight win over St. Louis.
Danny Amendola caught an early TD pass for St. Louis, which went ahead 17-10 late in the third quarter on Jackson's 13-yard TD run through traffic. Jackson rushed for 81 yards and made a tough 25-yard catch to set up the tying field goal for the Rams, who have lost seven straight road games.
"Stick together. Everyone stick together," Jackson said. "Everyone trust in what we're trying to get done, what we're trying to establish here. We have seven games to go. Although this is a tough one to swallow ... we're still in the middle of things."
Gore caught two big passes on the 49ers' 76-yard go-ahead drive in the final minutes of regulation, including an inexplicably wide-open 23-yard reception on fourth-and-18 when a stop would have finished it for St. Louis.
comments on this story
"Nothing more frustrating," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "You never relax, but a good quarterback got it to a good back twice. There's no excuse for that. Really, that can't happen."
Notes: Staley was on crutches after the game. He broke his left fibula. ... A first-quarter penalty also erased a long interception return by San Francisco CB Nate Clements. ... St. Louis also lost LT Rodger Saffold to an ankle injury in the first half, but Spagnuolo didn't think the injury would be a long-term problem.