ST. LOUIS -- Those last few minutes of Sunday's game, as their fingernails turned to powder holding onto a one-touchdown lead, meant everything to the 49ers.

Meant earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.

Meant that they don't have to line up for a playoff game next week while eight other NFL teams do.

Meant that all the 49ers players with injuries -- some of whom were inactive here against the St. Louis Rams and some of whom gamely pushed through their pain to play -- will now have a much-desired extra week to recuperate.

Meant that coach Jim Harbaugh will no longer have to search for adjectives when asked how important the eventual 34-27 victory was.

"How bad did we need the bye week?" Harbaugh said afterward, repeating a question, sounding almost irritated that it had been posed. "I can't quantify it. We needed it bad, needed it very bad, needed it really bad ... you can plug in whatever you want."

OK, thanks for the offer. We'll plug in the word "acutely." How's that sound? The 49ers needed acutely to win Sunday.

"It's a big deal," said 49ers tight end Justin Peelle, who filled in admirably for the ailing (jaw injury) Delanie Walker. "It doesn't guarantee anything. But it's a step toward where we want to go."


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Most important, it was not a step backward -- although for a few furious minutes in the fourth quarter, a backward fall seemed more than a remote possibility. The Rams, after falling behind by three touchdowns with 6:30 left in the game, demonstrated their professionalism by mounting a comeback almost out of nowhere -- in front of the perhaps 15,000 moderately loud customers who were still left inside the Edward Jones Dome.

The flurry all happened within 13 seconds, thanks in part to 49ers mental lapses -- a Rams touchdown, then a recovered onside kick, then a pass-interference flag, then another Rams touchdown. Suddenly, the 49ers were ahead by only seven points.

But at that point, Harbaugh's team remembered that this was not 2009 or 2010. The players remembered to stay disciplined. This group of 49ers deserves credit for so many things. But it has often been the largely unnoticed decision or subtle play, the discipline to stay with the program laid out by Harbaugh and his staff, that has counted the most.

For instance: Have you wondered why quarterback Alex Smith has thrown just five interceptions in his 16 starts, half as many interceptions as in 2010 when he started only 10 games? It is because of decisions such as the one he made with 3:53 remaining, when the 49ers faced a third-down play as they were nursing their one-touchdown lead, trying to run out the clock.

In other words, Smith desperately needed a first down. But when he dropped back and saw nothing available, Smith chose to take a sack -- even though it meant the 49ers would have to punt the ball away and leave the game in the defense's hands. In previous years, Smith would have recklessly forced a pass and wound up with an interception. He would have scrambled wildly and fumbled away the ball.

"Potentially in the past, I might have tried to make something happen," Smith conceded. "But the play wasn't there to be made. And with our special teams and defense ... I made the decision I did."

Thus, Smith allowed himself to be hauled down by the Rams, 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The 49ers punted, and their defense did indeed hold the Rams, stopping St. Louis on a fourth-down incomplete pass. It was broken up by defensive backs Reggie Smith and Tramaine Brock, who stayed -- that's right -- disciplined in their coverage. The 49ers offense then rushed for a first down before Smith took a knee as the clock expired.

"These are long, physical seasons," said a relieved Smith. "To get a bye is big."

And here's one way to look at it: The 49ers received their bye exactly because of those last few minutes Sunday. The Saints and 49ers finished with identical 13-3 records. But the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed turned out to be wins and losses within the conference -- and the 49ers had one more conference victory than the Saints.

Where did that crucial extra victory take place? Let's check the records. In October, New Orleans lost to the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. The 49ers didn't lose here Sunday.

Thirteen games in the win column is a difficult number for any team to reach in the NFL. Before we get too deep into playoff-matchup speculation, we should pause and salute the achievement. The last time that the 49ers won 13 regular-season games was in 1997. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was in fourth grade. Team owner Jed York was in high school. Harbaugh was playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. That's a long time ago.

The 49ers were not pleased with how they almost blew Sunday's game. That's understandable. But on a day when they were without two or their top three wideouts and one of their top two tight ends, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were as creative as ever with their personnel. The banged-up 49ers defense, with an obviously limited linebacker Patrick Willis (hamstring), gave up a season-high 27 points in regulation but stifled the Rams when it mattered most. And a fake field goal on special teams worked brilliantly.

Who's got it better than the 49ers? Only the Green Bay Packers, who are the No. 1 seed in the NFC bracket. But Sunday's victory put the 49ers in the best possible position to reach the conference title game. To paraphrase their coach, the 49ers needed to be in that position -- needed it bad, needed it really bad, needed it very bad.

And now, they get to plug in where it all goes from here.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5092.