Niners can start thinking about second season

The 49ers hit midseason this week against the Washington Redskins, but this is a team that already can start looking toward the NFL's second season. Coach Jim Harbaugh said this week that December will be "a time line" for when the Niners start contemplating the bigger picture of their season, but in reality they can do that right now, even though the calendar has just flipped to November.

While the Niners were cruising past the overmatched Cleveland Browns last week, San Francisco's two closest pursuers in the NFC West lost yet again.

The Seattle Seahawks were dumped by three touchdowns at home by a Cincinnati team that hasn't lost since the 49ers beat the Bengals in Cincinnati way back on Sept. 25. The Arizona Cardinals blew a 24-3 lead in Baltimore and lost to Harbaugh's brother John's team for the Cards' sixth consecutive defeat.

Heck, the 49ers even won when the St. Louis Rams – the NFC West preseason favorite of many – surprisingly recorded their first victory of the year, because the Rams did it with an upset of the New Orleans Saints. That gave the NFC South-leading Saints their third loss of the season.

And that matters, folks, because it's already time to start talking big picture here. And the Saints – Super Bowl winners two seasons ago – are likely candidates to be part of the big picture come January.

The 49ers certainly will be. At 6-1 and rolling into November with a five-game winning streak, first-place San Francisco already has a four-game cushion in the NFC West over second-place Seattle. The Niners already have five wins outside the division. The other three NFC West teams each have one such victory.

The 49ers not only can have the division clinched by Thanksgiving, they can mathematically have it wrapped up four days before then, when they get back into their division for the first time since their season opener with a Nov. 20 home game against Arizona.

The 49ers would have to win that game and their two before it to clinch on that day – and that's entirely possible, because the 49ers have reached the point where they can realistically beat anybody on their schedule, particularly their remaining schedule.

What's more unlikely is that every other NFC West team will lose every game up to that point except Arizona (when it hosts St. Louis this weekend) and St. Louis (when it hosts Seattle on Nov. 20).

But let's say that the Niners, by the time they get on the field for Harbaugh Bowl I on Thanksgiving Day in Baltimore, will be reasonably close to clinching their first NFC West title since 2002.

And let's go further to say that – with nine days off after that Thanksgiving game before the Niners return to action at home Dec. 4 against St. Louis – the clinching celebration will come sometime by early December.

It is going to happen. No team since NFL realignment in 2002 has ever blown a division lead of 3.5 games or more after Week 7, and the 49ers aren't going to be the first. They will run away with the NFC West like few 49ers teams have ever run away with a division title. The way this season is going, they could win this lousy division by seven or eight games.

That's a foregone conclusion. And it's something to be excited about.

But for the 49ers to actually do something come January, they must already start getting their mindset past being the team that ends a long and inglorious stretch of eight consecutive San Francisco seasons without a winning record or playoff berth.

When asked this week at what point he embraces what's possible for his team down the road, Harbaugh suggested to some extent that he already is of that mindset.

"We'll get to December and see how many wins we have, see how many we need as it relates to the season," Harbaugh said. "We're always living in the future in some regard, in terms of planning and making that December as good as it can be. Making this Sunday as good as it can possibly be. There's always a degree of that."

And then, Harbaugh revealed that, well, of course the 49ers have looked around and can see where they now stand in the NFL's big picture.

Heck, they have the second-best record in the entire league. They'd be the No. 2 seed in the NFC if the playoffs began today. The way their schedule stacks up the rest of the way compared to the unbeaten Green Bay Packers – who finish the season with eight games against teams that have winning records today – it's not inconceivable the 49ers could have a shot at the NFC's No. 1 seed.

The Niners, after such a long stretch of wallowing in NFL ignominy, certainly don't want to get ahead of themselves. But it's not a bad idea to start considering what's ahead, making it part of the thought process, and to start gradually preparing for it.

"Just generally, it's just a philosophy of life, of how we approach things as a team," Harbaugh said. "There's the one philosophy that's, ‘Yesterday's a mystery, tomorrow is a mystery, we live for the present, it's a gift' – that kind of thing. That's not us. We reject that. We live for the future to make tomorrow better, to make this Sunday better. Everything that we can do today, so we can have a better future."

The 49ers have done plenty already this season to have a future in this year's postseason derby. It's only midseason, but what the Niners have done so far makes it not too soon to envision the possibilities of what lies ahead.

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