GETTING BETTER COULD BE BEAUTIFUL FOR NINERS

<P>The beauty of the 49ers' season so far isn't that they're entering the next stage after their bye week with a 4-1 record. The beauty is that they're 4-1, and they've yet to even come close to playing their best football.

The beauty of the 49ers' season so far isn't that they're entering the next stage after their bye week with a 4-1 record. The beauty is that they're 4-1, and they've yet to even come close to playing their best football. Oh, sure, during the first five games you saw glimpses and flashes of it every now and then. Like when it counted. A half of defensive mastery here, a flurry of offensive power for a quarter there. Defense rising to the occasion. Offense finishing the deal with a late comeback. But never four quarters of sustained quality on both sides of the ball. Not yet, at least. For sure, that gives San Francisco - a team that owns the NFL's best record outside St. Louis - something to shoot for as it returns for an 11-week stretch that will define its season.

"We're not as good as we can be," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "I don't know how good this team can be, but we still can put four quarters together, certainly. You know, if you look at our season, we could very easily be 5-0. And we could very easily be 1-4."

And that's the beauty of it. The Niners have made the crucial, game-deciding plays in several games that have come down to a play or two or three. That's the sort of thing that separates good teams from bad teams - and the mediocre middle of which so many teams in the NFL seem to belong these days. Just think what could happen if the Niners actually start playing well. So far, they've just played well enough to squeak by.

"We haven't played great football," center Jeremy Newberry said. "We still haven't put a complete game together. But I know we've got a good team and I think everybody else does, too. Everybody around here that's part of this team is pretty confident with this team. So I don't think anybody's surprised with what we're doing. This team has a lot of resiliency and a ton of heart, and that will take you a long way in this league when the teams are as close as they are nowadays. There ain't no quit in this team."

Without question, that has been one of the Niners' most positive virtues. They have come from behind to win in each of their four victories. They trailed in the third quarter of three of those victories and came from behind in the fourth quarter in two to win in overtime. At the same time, they've played poorly for lengthy stretches to keep games close that could have been put away earlier so that no dramatic comebacks were necessary. It can be maddening. It can be fun. It also could be an impressionable way to win for a young team that is growing by the week.

"To be able to win like we're doing is huge for your confidence," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "It's huge for character, and I think it's going to be a strongpoint when we get down to being later in the season when wins are going to be very difficult to come by. "We've 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, because we know that we can improve in so many ways and continue to get better. That's the positive thing about this team, and what we can look at within this team right now is that there is so much room to get better."


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