By Jim Thomas

NEW ORLEANS • The San Francisco ***** are at the pinnacle of pro football, representing the NFC in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens.

But as dominant as they were in 2012, they couldn’t beat the Rams in two tries. There was that 24-24 overtime tie November 11 at Candlestick Park. A fluke, you say? Well, no. Because three weeks later in St. Louis, the Rams won 16-13 in overtime.

“It was almost déjà vu – the second game,” said ***** Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley. “It played out almost the exact same way. . . .I was like, ‘There’s no way we can go through this again, against this same exact team.’ ”

They didn’t. A 54-yard field goal by Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein with 26 seconds left in overtime snapped a 13-13 tie for the Rams on Dec. 2.

“We haven’t forgotten about that game,” ***** Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “Those guys played us tough this year, but we were able to prevail in another way and get to this point.”

So the Rams definitely got San Francisco’s attention in 2012, but several ***** still list Seattle as their main rival.

“The St. Louis games are great, but we don’t see them as our rivals though,” said tight end Delanie Walker, a Central Missouri State product.

Even so, the ***** players have a healthy amount of respect for the newly improved Rams.

“St. Louis is playing better football,” said defensive end Justin Smith, the University of Missouri product out of Jefferson City. “That was our toughest opponent this year.”

“Give credit where it’s due,” star linebacker Patrick Willis said. “They won the (second) game. They made more plays than we did and we didn’t make enough. It’s never good to play five quarters, but if you play five quarters, then you must get the win and we didn’t.”

And even Walker conceded, “They were really the only team that had our number this year.”

Smith said that the ’Niners weren’t shocked by the Rams’ improved play in those two contests because of what they saw on tape leading up to the games.

“We know they have a really good defense,” Smith said. “We have a lot of respect for Sam Bradford and some of the things they were doing. Steven Jackson’s a top back in this league. We weren’t too surprised.”

The loss and the tie helped cost San Francisco home-field advantage in the playoffs. Even so, the ***** should offer some thanks to their NFC West rivals. (Or is it “non-rivals” according to Walker?)

After all, San Francisco came very close to the Super Bowl a year ago under quarterback Alex Smith but didn’t get there. But the ***** made it this season with Colin Kaepernick taking over in Game 7 against the Rams after Smith suffered a concussion.

Exactly what caused the concussion remains a little bit of a mystery, although the prime “suspect” remains Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Dunbar absolutely blasted Smith on a scramble around left end with 1 minute 39 seconds remaining in the first half of that Nov. 11 meeting.

“Yeah, I hit him and looking at him getting up he grimaced,” Dunbar said Thursday from St. Louis in a phone interview. “You could tell that he felt a little pain.”

But Smith kept playing. After the game, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said the concussion occurred six plays later on a quarterback sneak early in the second quarter.

“It was probably a combination of both (plays),” Smith said Thursday. “I definitely got my bell rung (by Dunbar) and continued to play. I didn’t have any symptoms after that, though. Then on the QB sneak is when my vision went and I was really kind of disoriented a little bit.”

That makes Dunbar kind of responsible for the emergence of Kaepernick, right?

“You never want to hurt a player,” Dunbar said. “But it is a very violent game, and if my hit is the hit that caused it. . .it’s rewritten history, I guess.”

Conventional wisdom in San Francisco is that Harbaugh would’ve made the switch eventually. But if Smith hadn’t suffered the concussion, would Kaepernick be sitting where he is now – the toast of the Bay Area and the talk of the NFL?

“Probably not,” Kaepernick said. “That was the opportunity. That was my chance.”

Minus the concussion, does Smith think he’d still be starting?

“I do, yeah,” Smith said. “I’d still be out there playing. For sure.”

As it is, if Kaepernick guides the ***** to a victory Sunday, he will be what Kurt Warner was to Trent Green in 1999 – an unheralded quarterback who replaced the starter and won a Super Bowl.

“I’ve heard that one,” Dunbar said. “And when Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Tom Brady started playing.”

That was the 2001 season, when the New England Patriots claimed a last-second victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

It will take more than stellar work from Kaepernick to defeat the Ravens in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The physical ***** will have to at least hold their own against the physical Ravens. Six regular-season games against foes from the NFC West – the NFL’s new black-and-blue division – should help. Especially those two games against the Rams, according to San Francisco special teams coach Brad Seely.

“The most physical team we played is the Rams,”
Seely said.

And at least one 49er doesn’t expect that to change.

“The Rams are gonna be pretty good in 2013,” linebacker Bowman said. “Their defense definitely stepped up this year. Jeff Fisher and those guys went over there, and I think they’re on to something.