ST. LOUIS — During the first half Sunday, it looked like Joe Montana wouldn’t have been able to fix the St. Louis Rams’ anemic offense.
Then Marc Bulger came to life.
Bulger, playing for an injured Kurt Warner, completed 15-of-17 for 155 yards and one touchdown after halftime, rallying the Rams to a 27-24 overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers.
Jeff Wilkins kicked the winning 28-yard field goal with exactly 13 minutes left in overtime.
“Once halftime came, I just said, ‘I’m not playing that bad,’” Bulger said. “That 12 minutes helps you regroup.”
St. Louis (1-1) trailed 10-7 at the half and desperately needed to regroup offensively. The Rams passed 19 times in the first half and ran only seven times – all carries by Marshall Faulk, who gained a mere 16 yards. Bulger completed only 10 passes for 81 yards in the half and fumbled twice, the second time deep in San Francisco territory.
The solution was a return to the running game. In the second half and overtime, the Rams ran the ball as many times as Bulger passed. They gained 72 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
They also scored every time they had possession, accounting for two touchdowns and two field goals, including Wilkins’ winner.
“We just got a little bit of momentum rolling and our defense stepped up big for us, and I think we fed off that,” wide receiver Dane Looker said.
Looker caught a 19-yard touchdown from Bulger with 13:15 left in the fourth to give St. Louis a 21-17 lead.
The offensive recovery came immediately in the third quarter. After San Francisco (1-1) went three-and-out to start the quarter, the Rams took over at their own 7.
St. Louis brushed off the poor field position, taking 6:39 to drive to the end zone in 12 plays. Faulk capped the drive, which included eight runs and four pass completions, with a 2-yard touchdown run to provide a 14-10 lead.
San Francisco answered quickly, driving 75 yards to regain a 17-14 lead on Kevin Barlow’s 19-yard run.
St. Louis was only getting into gear, though. Bulger drove the Rams 71 yards on eight plays – all passes. Looker’s touchdown catch returned a 21-17 lead to St. Louis.
St. Louis added a 29-yard field goal from Wilkins with 3:20 left in the fourth to push the lead to 24-17. That kick capped a 14-play drive that started at the Rams’ 22.
“I do not know what really happened to us in the second half,” 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young said.
“In the first half, we were doing some things to be able to get to Bulger that were working for us, and we had a pretty good flow to the game. But come second half I don’t know if it was a combination of us not being in the right place or if they just made some great plays. Most likely after we will find out it was a combination of both.”
Despite the offensive resurgence, St. Louis almost gave away the win. The defense, strong almost the entire game, allowed San Francisco to drive 85 yards after Wilkins’ field goal, tying it at 24 on a 13-yard pass from Jeff Garcia to Terrell Owens. That touchdown came on a fourth-and-8 with 19 seconds left in the fourth.
The 49ers used a squib kick after Owens’ score to prevent a long return. The kick rocketed off a Rams player on the front line, and Rams safety Rich Coady grabbed the kick near midfield but fumbled trying to run. Arnaz Battle recovered for the 49ers.
On the final play of regulation, Cedrick Wilson caught a Garcia pass and advanced to the Rams’ 26 before time expired. It appeared Wilson could have been tackledwith time remaining, setting up a potential winning field goal.
“It’s easy to say ‘Go down’ now,” San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson said. “We told (Owens) because that’s where we were trying to go with the football to go down. Cedrick caught the ball and tried to make a play.”
St. Louis won the overtime coin toss. Rookie Arlen Harris, who fumbled a punt in the first quarter to set up San Francisco’s first touchdown, made up for the mistake by returning the kick 42 yards to the Rams’ 48.
A Faulk run gained 1 yard on first down, but a face mask call advanced the ball to the San Francisco 36. Bulger then found Torry Holt for 4 yards and Faulk gained 22 more on a short swing pass, setting up Wilkins’ winner.
Wilkins insisted he wasn’t nervous.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s what you want to do. A game-winner against a team like the 49ers.”
Bulger’s strong second half created one problem for the Rams. Warner, who suffered a concussion in a season-opening 23-13 loss to the New York Giants, should be healthy enough to start next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Rams coach Mike Martz said he’d decide later this week who would start against Seattle. But Martz gave high praise to Bulger.
“I think that he got shook up pretty good in the first half,” Martz said. “Like great players do after they make mistakes, they correct them and come back and play very well. That’s what Marc did; ladies and gentlemen, that is a big league quarterback.”
Warner completed 34-of-54 for 342 yards and one touchdown in the loss to the Giants, but fumbled twice and threw an interception.
The veteran isn’t about to start a controversy.
“I think I’ve stated my case over the years and in the preseason,” Warner said. “But this is not my decision.”
Bulger also elected to leave the quarterback debate up to fans.
“I’m not going to even think about it,” he said. “We have until Wednesday off. So I’m just going to enjoy it for now. I didn’t state anything. I’m just happy right now because we won.”