ST. LOUIS -- A quiet procession of glum-faced 49ers trudged into their locker room Sunday, showing no signs they just won their 13th game and clinched the NFC playoffs' No. 2 seed.
Then along came kicker David Akers to break the silence.
"Why's it so quiet, man? We've got a bye week coming," Akers hollered on his way into the locker room after the 49ers' harrowing 34-27 win over the St. Louis Rams.
Akers, by virtue of his Philadelphia Eagles' past, has the most playoff experience on the 49ers and knows how valuable a bye could be for next weekend's wild-card round.
Coach Jim Harbaugh knows, too, so he was in no mood to criticize his players for nearly coughing up a 34-13 lead in the final five minutes.
"I'm not going to come in here and be sad that we won," said Harbaugh, only the fourth rookie coach in NFL history to win 13 games, the 49ers' most since Steve Mariucci did it as a rookie coach in 1997. "We start a new season, as of today."
The 49ers (13-3) needed Sunday's win to nudge the New Orleans Saints (13-3) for the No. 2 seed, with the 49ers owning a tiebreaker based on a better record in conference play. The defending champion Green Bay Packers (15-1) are the No. 1 seed and would host the 49ers in the NFC final Jan. 22 if both teams advance from their divisional-round debuts Jan. 14-15. The 49ers will host the divisional-round game.
Before the 49ers could move on to their first postseason in nine years, they had to extinguish an improbable rally by the Rams (2-14).
Trailing 34-13, the Rams struck for two touchdowns in a 13-second span. After Brandon Lloyd's 36-yard touchdown catch, the Rams recovered an ensuing onside kick. A pass-interference penalty on Tarell Brown put the ball at the 1, and Cadillac Williams ran in for a touchdown on the next snap, with 4:36 remaining.
"We got a little relaxed, and we can't afford to do that to be the defense we want to be," said linebacker Patrick Willis, who played his first game since straining his right hamstring in a 26-0 shutout of the Rams on Dec. 4.
With 2:37 remaining, the 49ers finally snuffed out the Rams' last offensive threat. That's when safety Reggie Smith and cornerback Tramaine Brock successfully defended a fourth-down pass by Tom Brandstater.
"I was reading the quarterback's eyes and it looked like he was throwing straight to me," Smith said. "I saw Tramaine there too, so it was pretty tight coverage. I think all of us touched it -- me, T. Brock and the receiver."
Brandstater was summoned when Kellen Clemens got hurt two plays earlier on a sack by NaVorro Bowman.
Clemens, who started in place of the injured Sam Bradford (ankle) and A.J. Feeley (thumb), gave the Rams a 7-0 lead on an 18-yard touchdown scramble on his team's first possession. But it was his ability to spark a fourth-quarter comeback that put the 49ers on edge.
"Obviously it changed the mood a little bit," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "But the bottom line is we got the win. That's what we came here for, and we made the plays at the end."
Defense tackle Justin Smith was poised to sit out the second half to rest a leg injury. Instead, he returned for that final series and made his presence felt. He didn't lobby his coaches to get back in the game and simply "grabbed his helmet and went in," Harbaugh said with approval.
The win seemed like a lock in the third quarter, when Akers threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on a fake field goal attempt. Akers took a direct snap and found Crabtree wide open for a 27-10 lead. It was also Crabtree's second touchdown catch of the game, a feat he'd never before accomplished in his career.
That lead climbed to 34-13 on Anthony Dixon's 1-yard touchdown run with 6½ minutes remaining. Akers' point-after kick gave him 166 points this season, giving him the most points in a season by a kicker and breaking Gary Anderson's mark of 164 points for the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.
The 49ers have not committed a turnover in their past 22 quarters, and Alex Smith has not had a pass intercepted in his last 160 attempts. Smith scored the 49ers' first touchdown on an 8-yard scramble, and he completed 21 of 31 passes for 219 yards with a 28-yard touchdown toss to Crabtree.
Cornerback Brown's two interceptions gave the 49ers a plus-28 turnover differential. That matched last season's New England Patriots for the second-best mark behind the 1983 Washington Redskins' plus-43.
Now that is the positive kind of momentum the 49ers want to take into the playoffs.
"Obviously this isn't going to be a vacation," Alex Smith said of the bye week. "Everyone will be in there (preparing). It's a chance to get healthy and rest, but we'll be around."
For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.
Will host New Orleans, N.Y. Giants or Atlanta, 1:30 p.m.
Akers, Crabtree make it work on fake field goal. PAGE 9