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Dr. Z's Forecast

You had the feeling that sooner or later the 49ers would be
good. They'd swallowed their medicine and taken their salary-cap
hit; they'd gone about rebuilding the franchise in a sensible
way, cramming the roster with as many promising youngsters as
they could find. This was known as long-range planning, and you
figured that around, oh, 2003 they'd be ready to make a move.

Somewhere along the line, though, they must have gotten their
hands on some growth hormone, because they are on the threshold
of their most important game since their days as a perennial
playoff team, facing the mighty Rams for control of the NFC
West. Lots of things had to fall into place for this to happen.

Nobody really believed in Garrison Hearst's comeback attempt
from a serious ankle injury, but here he is, not merely a
functional runner with speed but also one capable of carrying a
ground game and imposing his will in a nasty way. The
quarterback, Jeff Garcia, continues to play at an All-Pro level.
The line has turned into one of the best run-blocking units in
the game. The defense, if not overpowering, is active and can
make plays. All of which has contributed to an NFL-best
five-game winning streak, which the Niners will bring to St.

The teams met in September in a game filled with dropped passes,
missed chances and hard feelings all around. Hearst went down
with a concussion. Niners All-Pro defensive tackle Bryant Young
suffered an ankle injury, courtesy of a crackback block by Rams
right tackle Ryan Tucker. San Francisco receivers dropped seven
passes, but the Rams were out of sync too, and they saved their
four-point victory by getting the ball into Marshall Faulk's
hands on eight straight plays to run out the clock.

Both teams are coming off comfortable wins. The 49ers' triumph
over the Bills was never in doubt. St. Louis, on the other hand,
was pushed hard by the Falcons for a half before getting its
long-range guns working and putting the game away. The biggest
thing the Rams have going for them on Sunday is that the game is
at the St. Louis Speedway, where everything happens quickly. The
Niners, though, can put up points too. They've averaged 31 a game
over their last seven. Garcia is no stranger to shootout
football, and he hasn't turned the ball over as often as Kurt
Warner has this year.

On a hunch, I'll go for the upset and take San Francisco. Most
of these Niners have never played in a game of this magnitude,
and if they're not too psyched, they have a chance to stun the
Rams early and force them to play from behind. The 49ers could
then try to force turnovers, which have become a big headache
for the Rams.

The Patriots are another team that has come of age. They spotted
the Jets 13 points at the Meadowlands, switched gears in the
second half and went to more open formations and quicker passes
off a shorter drop, and pulled out the win. The week before, New
England had beaten the Saints on sheer physical toughness. The
Patriots have that playoff look, and I'll ride with 'em for
another week, this time over Cleveland.

The Bears have strange ideas about catch-up football. The last
time they played Green Bay (and lost), they tried to rally with
an array of dink passes. Of their last six completions, the
longest was six yards. The Packers must have thought they were
being attacked by gnats. Maybe Chicago will open things up, as
it did against the Bucs, but I doubt it. I'll take Green Bay.

The Giants squeaked by the Cowboys and their dynamic passing duo
of Clint Stoerner and Ryan Leaf in overtime last month. Now New
York has a chance to torment another guy, Quincy Carter. New
quarterback, same result. Giants will make it 2 for 2. Atlanta
has had the Saints' number for some time, but without
quarterback Chris Chandler, who was knocked out of the St. Louis
game with a sprained left ankle, I can't see the Falcons
winning. New Orleans is the pick if Chandler can't go; I'll go
the other way if he plays.

The Titans will keep their playoff hopes flickering against the
Vikings. Ditto the Cardinals against the Redskins. The Steelers
will wreak defensive havoc on the Jets, and the Dolphins will
pull one out against the Colts.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Wideout Terrell Owens will be a handful for St. Louis's defense.