You can tell it by the way they talk, by the intonation in their voices. You can tell it by the way they look, by the faces around the locker room that have grown more confident as the weeks have passed.
You can tell it by the way they play. The 49ers aren't just spending their bye week resting their bodies and thinking about ways they can get better. They're also thinking about the playoffs. The playoff word is not something thrown around lightly by the 49ers, but it's still finding its way into conversation regarding the team. In one of his final media gatherings this week before giving his players four days off, coach Steve Mariucci - who has staunchly preached the "one-week-at-a-time" philosophy to his young team since training camp - even made a pointed reference to the 49ers extending their season past their Dec. 30 regular-season finale at Dallas. And he did it twice.
"We've gone through almost a full season, and the length of it is like a regular college season," Mariucci said. "They are going to take a break and I want them to shut it down. Because when we come back we have another 11 games plus. We take a little break, and (then) another 11 games plus hopefully some more than that."
Two questions later, when asked about his team's 4-1 record, the second-best record in the NFL behind the 5-0 Rams, who gave the Niners their only defeat 30-26 on Sept. 23 in San Francisco, Mariucci said: "It's just the midway point right now. We've had 11 weeks of football already (including training camp) and we have 11 left plus, hopefully, playoffs. So this is a real good time for taking an intermission."
The 49ers even are starting to get regularly mentioned by national media as among possible NFC playoff contenders. The Rams and the 4-1 Packers are the only teams that have matched San Francisco's strong start. No other NFC team is better than 3-1, and only three others even have a winning record entering Sunday's games. Quarterback Jeff Garcia said the Niners had expectations entering the season that "were legitimate in saying that we believe we're a playoff-caliber team."
That belief has grown stronger now that the Niners can take a weekend off with a three-game winning streak. San Francisco has won eight of its last 11 games dating back to last season.
"It's such a positive attitude and atmosphere here in this locker room right now," Garcia said. "Yes, we're winning games right now, but we all know we can get better and grow and be much better as a team. We've just gotten off to a very positive start, but it's so early in the season. It's nothing to hang your hat on yet. There's a long way to go, and we as a team are not content in any way."