ST. LOUIS -- Colin Kaepernick's ghastly error on a risky play call cost the 49ers their lead with three minutes left in regulation Sunday.
Eventually, it cost him his first loss in three starts: a 16-13 overtime decision against a St. Louis Rams team that tied the first-place 49ers only three weeks earlier at Candlestick Park.
"I gave up those points that were on the scoreboard for the Rams," Kaepernick said in obvious sorrow. "They were my fault."
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein accounted for the final points, however, when he made a 54-yard field goal in the final minute of overtime. After diving to try blocking that kick, cornerback Tarell Brown briefly stayed face first on the turf for what he cited as "heartbreak."
Forced into overtime for a second straight meeting, the 49ers (8-3-1) looked well on their way to avenging their Nov. 11 tie against the Rams (5-6-1).
But everything turned when Kaepernick botched a third-down play late in the fourth quarter. On third-and-3 from the 49ers' 17-yard line, Kaepernick pitched the ball over Ted Ginn Jr.'s head at the 10-yard line, and Janoris Jenkins recovered it for a Rams' touchdown.
The Rams, looking to remain remarkably unbeaten in NFC West action, tied it at 10 with a two-point conversion pass from Sam Bradford to tight end Lance Kendricks, who slipped past linebacker Patrick Willis.
"That was on us, that was the wrong play to call at that time," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh
Harbaugh wrapped up his surprisingly congenial news conference by defending Kaepernick, stating he again will start ahead of Alex Smith next Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins.
"I'm proud of Kap," Harbaugh said. "He did a lot of good things under heat and duress, and he handled himself well. He gave us a chance to win."
He did, indeed.
Two plays into the 49ers' ensuing series, Kaepernick tried making amends and scrambled 50 yards down the right sideline to the Rams' 14-yard line. But tight end Delanie Walker dropped a potential touchdown pass on the next play, and the 49ers settled for David Akers' 33-yard field goal.
A touchdown would have thwarted the Rams' eventual rally. Thrust into 49ers territory thanks to Dashon Goldson's unnecessary-roughness penalty on a sliding Bradford, the Rams forced overtime when Zuerlein made a 53-yard field goal as regulation expired.
The 49ers took the first crack at a winning field goal in overtime, only to see Akers hook a 51-yard attempt with 4:16 remaining.
"It's a game of inches, and I missed by three or four inches," Akers said. "I feel horrible for letting down my teammates, organization and fans."
That was a common feeling throughout the 49ers locker room, including defenders who played stellar but still allowed the Rams to get in range for those clutch field goals. The 49ers failed to force a turnover, as Brown noted in dismay.
Despite the past month's injection of Kaepernick's play-making panache, the offense couldn't consistently move the chains, aside from a second-series drive that lasted 11 plays and produced Frank Gore's 1-yard touchdown run.
"We've got to get this fixed, quick," left tackle Joe Staley said. "We as an offense, we should be executing a lot higher."
Another offensive breakdown led to the Rams' first points: a third-quarter safety in which Kaepernick was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone. Officials ruled that Kaepernick's desperation throw out of bounds failed to reach the line of scrimmage, and although replays indicated otherwise, the play was not reviewable, according to referee Carl Cheffers.
Several teammates came to Kaepernick's defense after the game
"He did a great job," Walker said. "We've got to help him out as teammates and make plays. He was making the right calls, and we didn't make enough plays."
Added Vernon Davis: "He's a true pro. He wants to win and contribute. Tonight he did a wonderful job."
Tonight? It was a noon start, but the extended action certainly cast a nightlike gloom for the 49ers inside the Edward Jones Dome.
"This will test us. It tests our character as a team," Harbaugh said. "The way our team competes and fights and plays with the effort they do, I feel good about our guys and our character."
Sunday's outcome, however, did not offer a feel-good story for a 49ers team jockeying for its playoff position, not to mention an NFC West title that has yet to be won.