SANTA CLARA, Calif. - If it exists, the 49ers have done a good job to mask the reported tension between players in the locker room and head coach Jim Harbaugh prior to this week.
But things are starting to bubble on that front, stemming from receiver Michael Crabtree's comments about being the third option after Sunday's critical win over the Saints. A loss Sunday to the 3-6 Giants, particularly with an uneven offensive performance, could make things simmer.
"Third down. I’m a third-down receiver. I mean, I’m like the third option. So I come in and I do my job," Crabree told the San Francisco Chronicle, after hauling in the critical 51-yard, fourth-and-10 catch to set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.
Harbaugh brought up those comments Monday, and brought them up again on Wednesday, which seems out of character. In the past, Harbaugh would dismiss the story, perhaps terming it something like "flack," and focus instead on his effusive praise of his players.
Crabtree's season has not been up to his standards, and is confounded by his pending free agency at the end of the season. He leads the 49ers with eight drops and his connection with Colin Kaepernick seemed out of sorts against the Saints, that fourth-down catch aside.
"He's a tremendous competitor," Harbaugh said. "I'm not blaming him or anybody."
Even if the story is allowed to fester, it could hurt this week's mandate: beat the New York Giants on Sunday.
If the story is an external one, being discussed and written about only outside the locker room, there are still other reasons for the 49ers to be on upset alert.
First- head coach Tom Coughlin's team has upset San Francisco before: the 2011 conference title game and their ensuing match up in 2012, when the 49ers were seven-point favorites on their home field. San Francisco is a 4.5-point favorite Sunday.
Second- Sunday's game will be the 49ers' fourth road game in their last six weeks, with the bye sandwiched in between. The final game of such stretches can often feature sub-par performances, particularly for a team as banged up as San Francisco, who just lost Patrick Willis for the season while NaVorro Bowman underwent an MRI Wednesday after reportedly feeling pain in his surgically repaired knee.
Third- At some point, even with Aldon Smith back, will the 49ers' overachieving defense ever fall back to earth? They know Willis is done for the season and Bowman's future might be up in the air. So does the encouragement and enthusiasm fade going forward knowing all their bullets won't be back in the chamber as they once believed?
Wideout Anquan Boldin, who gave his 'one-game season' speech in front of the team last week, has no doubt the 49ers can win a Super Bowl despite so much fluctuation on the roster.
"We feel like the guys that we have are capable of getting the job done, no matter where it is," Boldin said. "When you have a guy like NaVorro not being in, that's big for us, Pat going on IR that's big, not having Aldon the first nine weeks. We feel like the guys who have to step in, who have to replace them are adequate enough to get the job done.
"There's no lack of confidence on our behalf."
Confidence is one thing, but overconfidence can bite a team coming off a big win like the 49ers are, against a desperate team like the Giants - who have lost four straight.
But it looks like Harbaugh is already weary of all these challenges, knowing how much is on the line over these remaining seven games on the schedule.
"It's a must," Harbaugh said, channeling Boldin's speech to the team. "...Every game is a big game. All you have to do is turn on the film and see the way the Giants play football and you know that it's going to be a big task, a huge test for us. They've had games where they've scored a lot of points in bunches.
"Defensively, they have the most interceptions. They have a tremendous pass rush. Great quarterback. We've had ball games with this team before. We know exactly what they're capable of."