Team-first 49ers much more than flimsy fluke

Maybe because they play in a poor-stepsister division that a year ago produced the NFL's first-ever 7-9 champion, it's become fashionable this season to regard the 49ers with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the doubters are inexorably being won over.

Including this one.

Especially after the 49ers' victory last Sunday against a very solid New York Giants team, San Francisco's seventh consecutive win and arguably the most impressive of the season.

Yep, that's a packet of Purplesaurus Rex in the glass next to the laptop. And, oh, yeah, we're getting about ready to quaff down the Kool-Aid. It might be time to view the 49ers as more than simply a flimsy fluke.

At 8-1, the 49ers are the only team in the NFL besides the Green Bay Packers with fewer than two defeats, and they can actually clinch their turkey of a division before the calendar even turns to December, when most division titles usually are decided.

Even after the NFC West went 4-0 last week for the first time since NFL realignment in 2002, the 49ers still have as many victories as the other three franchises in the division combined.

But the fact San Francisco competes in the NFL's most blighted neighborhood shouldn't really affect the way rookie coach Jim Harbaugh's team is viewed, several players have suggested.

"You play the teams that are on the schedule, and you don't make apologies," said defensive end Justin Smith, who on Sunday deflected Eli Manning's fourth-down pass in the final minute to secure a victory that continued San Francisco's longest winning streak since 1997.

"Maybe the best thing about this team, and about (Harbaugh), is that we really don't look at that stuff," Smith continued. "We just worry about playing good football every week and taking care of our own business."

The 49ers have been playing good football every week all season, and they certainly have been taking care of business.

Save for a Week 2 defeat against Dallas, when the 49ers squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, San Francisco has consistently played like one of the best teams in the NFL.

There is a ton of credit to go around.

Team president Jed York and his father John York, the team's co-chairman and owner, convinced Harbaugh to venture across the Bay when the former Stanford coach was being courted by other teams.

Harbaugh then hung his hat on quarterback Alex Smith when others were ready to label the former No. 1 overall draft pick a first-round flop.

The 49ers signed wide receiver Braylon Edwards as a free agent despite on- and off-field red flags.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio released one secondary starter and traded a second. The defensive unit that opened against the Giants last week featured seven players who were either in their first year as starters, new to the franchise, or in new positions.

The 49ers don't rank in the top 10 offensively or defensively – although they are 11th in the latter and still own the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense – but they hang together as a team and they win.

Statistically, the offense is only No. 25. The defense, notably, is first in fewest points allowed.

Certainly Harbaugh, at this point, is a runaway favorite for NFL Coach of the Year honors, and Smith, who has resurrected his career and rates as the league's No. 7 quarterback in terms of passer rating, will be a candidate for Comeback Player.

"But I don't know that anyone on this team thinks of himself as the star," said veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers, a free agent addition who is tied for the league lead with five interceptions. "(Harbaugh) has done a good job of having guys buy into the team concept. As a former player himself, he knows how important that is. And he knows what buttons to push. People believe in him and he kind of gets you to believe in yourself."

Nowhere is that truer than with Smith, who has largely been viewed as a guy who mostly handed the ball off to tailback Frank Gore, probably the closest the 49ers come to a star player on the offensive side of the ball, and tried not to lose the game.

Ironically, Harbaugh may have done his quarterback an unwitting disservice when he alluded to him last week as a good game manager. New York defensive end Justin Tuck picked up on the theme, publically, and Smith took umbrage.

And then he took over the game with perhaps the best performance of his career in a game of high magnitude.

"Manage this," Smith noted afterward, taking a hardly subtle swipe at Tuck and at his remaining detractors.

It was a feistiness and a confidence not exhibited in San Francisco in several years. After all, the 49ers haven't posted a winning record since 2002, when they captured the NFC West title with a 10-6 mark.

Since then, San Francisco has suffered through seven losing seasons in eight campaigns, and won five game or fewer in three of those years. With a victory over Arizona this weekend, the 49ers will end a string of eight consecutive seasons without a winning record.

Said inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a first-year starter who ranks second in the NFL with 92 tackles: "I don't know if we're the best team, but we're a team."

Pass the pitcher of Tropical Punch, please, because that may be enough.

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