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49ers beat Big Ben, Steelers 20-3

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel (99) tries to block the pass during the second quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel (99) tries to block the pass during the second quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
By Janie McCauley
AP Sports Writer / December 20, 2011
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SAN FRANCISCO—Ben Roethlisberger threw a few extra passes in near darkness after the lights went out at Candlestick Park.

The additional throws were all for naught. Big Ben never found his groove playing on a bum ankle -- and the San Francisco 49ers' top-ranked defense wasn't about to let the most unique of home-field advantages get away in a 20-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.

"Just wondering how this happens at a professional stadium," Roethlisberger said of not one but two blackouts.

Monday Night Football nearly became a Monday Night Fiasco.

San Francisco's lights-out return to prime time helped salvage what could have been an embarrassing evening for everyone involved on the NFL's biggest stage after a pair of power outages delayed the game for close to 35 minutes in all.

"I just feel like San Francisco took a big step to show the NFL and to show the state of California that they need a new stadium," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "I think it was a very strategic move, and Candlestick may be no more."

Good thing there's a state-of-the-art $1 billion stadium in the works.

The 49ers rode stellar run defense once again to keep the ailing Roethlisberger off balance and maintain a hold on the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.

"Electric atmosphere tonight," tweeted team president Jed York -- unclear if his pun was intended.

Vernon Davis caught a 1-yard touchdown pass for the 49ers (11-3) one play after setting himself up with a 21-yard reception from Alex Smith, Frank Gore had a 5-yard scoring run and David Akers kicked field goals of 22 and 38 yards to overtake Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for San Francisco's single-season scoring record.

"I think we showed the world we can play the game of football on a national stage," Davis said. "At the end of the day that's what it's all about: respect."

The Steelers (10-4) missed a key chance to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North and hold of the AFC's top playoff spot.

Roethlisberger, playing on a sprained left ankle that had him in a walking boot during the week, threw two early interceptions and another in the waning minutes -- and a couple of light structures flickered as the final ticks elapsed.

Even all those Terrible Towel-waving Steelers supporters in the sellout crowd of 69,732 couldn't will their team when San Francisco had two blackout delays on its side.

"It's very frustrating to feel like you let down your team and your fans and your coaches. It's tough," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not going to make excuses. I played a bad football game, I turned the ball over and that one's on me."

San Francisco became the first team in NFL history to hold an opponent without a rushing touchdown through each of the first 14 games.

"I also want to recognize our defense," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "NFL record for not allowing a rushing touchdown in 14 games. I think that is huge."

Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown made interceptions, while Rookie of the Year candidate Aldon Smith had 2 1/2 sacks for San Francisco's stingy defense.

The 49ers also have gone 36 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Rashard Mendenhall had 15 carries for 64 yards.

"This team has really become a team," Harbaugh said. I'm really proud of them for that."

Roethlisberger still finished 25 for 44 for 330 yards, but was sacked three times. After his second pick, he fumed as he limped off the field and could be seen yelling into his chin strap.

The 49ers made a big statement in their most meaningful home game since their last trip to the playoffs in January 2003, when San Francisco came from behind to stun the New York Giants 39-38 in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.

"It was probably the biggest home game since I've been here," Alex Smith said.

They had to wait 20 minutes to get started after the power went out the first time. It didn't seem to faze San Francisco.

"It wasn't too bad. It was unusual," said Alex Smith, who went 18 for 31 for 187 yards. "You don't expect to have to deal with it, and it happened twice. But it was the same for both teams."

Smith wasn't sacked after being taken down 18 times in the previous three games, including nine in the Niners' prime time flop at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night against Jim Harbaugh's big brother, John.

Jim Harbaugh prepared for the Steelers by comparing notes with his brother after the Ravens won both meetings this season with Pittsburgh in one of the AFC's fiercest rivalries.

The Steelers are 0-for-Harbaugh this season.

"I think we need to acknowledge that was 49er football tonight," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We played the game on their terms."

The 37-year-old Akers, who long admired Rice from afar growing up in Kentucky, topped Rice's 1987 mark of 138 points.

Yet Akers has said he doesn't feel deserving of the points mark over a great such as Rice -- who clowned around on the field before the game catching passes from fellow Hall of Famer and former QB Steve Young, including one in the end zone.

It was after Akers' second field goal when everything went dark for a second time. Thousands of flashbulbs went off in the midst of the black, with thousands of fans sitting in darkness -- including all those Steelers fans who travel the country with their team.

NFL security chief Jeff Miller said he witnessed a transformer blow up while he was monitoring a gate outside the stadium, where a shooting during the preseason already put a negative light on this venue.

The second delay came early in the second quarter and halted the game again between the playoff-bound teams for about 15 minutes. Miller and other NFL officials gathered in the press box to assess the situation, remaining in constant contact with the commissioner's office.

This was the 49ers' only Monday night game this season and their final regular-season home game at Candlestick Park. The NFL certainly will want to make sure there are no problems when San Francisco hosts a home playoff game next month as NFC West champions -- and Miller said he remains confident Candlestick can capably host a playoff game.

"Never in my life have I been a part of a blackout in a stadium," Davis said.

The Steelers missed linebacker James Harrison, who served his one-game suspension for a helmet to facemask hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8.

"We better lick our wounds pretty quickly because we have a quick turnaround here," Tomlin said.

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