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San Francisco 49ers Frank Gore (21) waves a 49ers flag after they beat the St. Louis Rams 26-0 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Calif. on Sunday, December 4, 2011. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

Team owner John York happily emerged from the 49ers locker room wearing a "Division Champions" cap.

General manager Trent Baalke donned a similar souvenir as he modestly ducked out of Candlestick Park.

Quarterback Alex Smith may have worn that cap best, however, out of all the 49ers' embattled figures over the franchise's eight-season playoff drought.

"This isn't a fluke or anything like that," Smith said after the 49ers clinched the NFC West and a playoff berth by virtue of a 26-0 win over the St. Louis Rams.

The 49ers (10-2) rebounded from a Thanksgiving night loss at Baltimore with a dominant performance against the last-place Rams (2-10).

Individual milestones were set, both by Frank Gore (the 49ers' new all-time rushing leader) and David Akers (franchise-record 32 field goals this season).

One marquee individual, linebacker Patrick Willis, had to watch most of Sunday's game from the sideline because of a strained right hamstring.

But the Willis-less defense still managed to deliver its first shutout since a 35-0 rout of the Rams on Oct. 4, 2009.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said he "wanted to see how our team would come back after a tough loss on the road, and they responded like mighty men. It was a tremendous performance defensively, a real gem."

With that defense on the field during the two-minute warning, left tackle Joe Staley sneaked up on Harbaugh and tried dousing him with a Gatorade cooler. Harbaugh, exhibiting the peripheral vision from his 15-year career as an NFL quarterback, darted left to avoid a direct hit.

Did Jed York, the 49ers' president, expect such a quick playoff berth upon hiring Harbaugh away from Stanford in January, at the high cost of a five-year, $25 million contract?

"What we wanted to do was make sure our general manager and our head coach were on the same page, and make sure that trickles down," Jed York said. "I think that's where we are right now, but, again, there's a long way to go.

"We've hit our first milestone by winning the division, but there's a long way for us to go."

Harbaugh grouped himself Sunday among "us new guys" who felt especially glad for the long-toiling 49ers who've attempted to return one of the league's most prominent franchises to greatness, or at least the playoffs.

As for Baalke, he continued to shy away from any media spotlight, as has been the case since he took on the general manager role after last season's 6-10 campaign.

"Talk to the players," Baalke said in the Candlestick parking lot. "It's about them, and it's not about me."

Those players spoke volumes through on-field actions against a Rams squad missing quarterback Sam Bradford, who sat out with an ankle injury.

As for the 49ers' quarterback, Smith overcame a sour first half and delivered a 142.3 passer rating, the best of a highly scrutinized career that started with his selection atop the 2005 draft. Smith was 17 of 23 for 274 yards, including second-half touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree (52 yards) and Kyle Williams (56 yards).

Smith hit Crabtree in stride at the 5-yard line for that touchdown, which came on the 49ers' first series after halftime and broke open what had been a 9-0 lead.

"I knew they would call it, but you never know when," Crabtree said. "We practice it every week. It's nothing new."

What also wasn't new was Akers kicking a field goal once a drive stalled inside an opponents' 20-yard line. For the third time in five games, Akers made all four of his field-goal attempts. Sunday's quartet came on attempts from 36, 19, 28 and 34 yards.

Defensively, the 49ers allowed only 157 yards to the injury-riddled Rams. Steven Jackson and Jerious Norwood each ran for only 19 yards. Quarterback A.J. Feeley (12 of 22, 156 yards) committed two turnovers, a fumble that Aldon Smith recovered and an interception that served as Dashon Goldson's fourth this season.

Once inside their locker room, the 49ers' attention shifted to televisions showing the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers narrowly defeat the New York Giants 38-35.

While the Packers are poised to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the 49ers are in line for the No. 2 seed and don't intend to overly relish their division title.

"We can't let up against Arizona next week," Jed York said. "Sometimes celebrating this early isn't always a good thing. We need to make sure we keep our heads down, we keep focused and we keep moving forward."

Finally, they can stop looking back to add up their failed playoff runs.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.