Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — All week long, Frank Gore had a quick, supportive message to ease Jim Harbaugh's mind whenever he sensed his coach was unnerved: "Coach, we got this."
"He came up to me probably a half dozen times," Harbaugh said. "I believed him. I trusted him."
Gore made good on his mantra, all right. He's headed to the playoffs for the first time, and as San Francisco's career rushing leader to boot.
The two-time Pro Bowler and his 49ers trounced the beat-up St. Louis Rams 26-0 on Sunday to become the NFL's second team to secure a playoff berth behind unbeaten defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
Harbaugh's team, in command since Week 1, wrapped up that long-awaited NFC West title with four games to go. This has been quite the resurgence for a once-proud franchise determined to return to the glory days of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, Steve Young and Roger Craig.
Gore waved a giant 49ers flag all the way back to the celebratory locker room.
He and Vernon Davis, Alex Smith and Patrick Willis, they're all taking their trusted leader — Harbaugh — to the postseason next month as playoff first-timers.
The 49ers are division champs and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
"It's sweet to clinch it, especially at home," said Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick who has been beaten down time and time again during a rocky seven years in the Bay Area only to prevail under Harbaugh's guidance. "It's the first step. We talked about it all week — win the division. Obviously it hasn't been done around here in almost a decade. We've talked about it since I've been here, and it's no different this year."
Harbaugh delivered exactly what the 49ers hired him for back in January: immediate success, a major transformation in a matter of months. So much for the lockout slowing him down.
Left tackle Joe Staley delivered the Gatorade dousing on Harbaugh's head in the closing moments — sneaking up on the coach at the 2-minute warning. Or so he thought. Harbaugh, a 15-year NFL quarterback himself in his day, dodged out of the way to avoid being fully soaked.
"This step, this game today is for all those strong and mighty men who have been carrying the flag for this many years," Harbaugh said. "Each year that they've been here, thinking that was going to be the year, the year we go to the playoffs ... and there's disappointment when you don't make that."
Gore helped run San Francisco (10-2) right into the postseason, passing late Hall of Famer Joe Perry and finishing with 73 yards to become the franchise leader in yards rushing at 7,417.
Smith threw second-half touchdowns of 52 and 56 yards to Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams, respectively, and David Akers kicked four field goals to help Harbaugh join George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997) as the only rookie coaches in franchise history to win the division.
The only downer came when Willis left the game in the first half with a right hamstring injury that Harbaugh afterward said he didn't consider serious.
Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley struggled in place of injured starter Sam Bradford for the reeling Rams (2-10), who watched several more key players go down.
Even Feeley needed X-rays afterward on his right thumb.
"It's kind of the same story we've had all year. We just can't seem to put anything together," he said. "It's like a clock where everybody's got to be in sync. When that doesn't happen you put yourself in a tough situation."
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