Niners sitting pretty at midseason

<P>It's a rather favorable position the 49ers find themselves in at midseason, and a fairly unexpected one at that. They're 6-2 and own the second-best record in the NFL. </P>

They're already 4-1 in the NFC West, after going 1-7 in the division last year. They have an inside track to a playoff berth, and a lot of reasons to be feeling good about themselves after spending the last two seasons in the bottom half of the league.

"I'm happy where we are," coach Steve Mariucci said Monday. "We're happy with the record and that sort of thing."

But satisfied? Uh, not quite. The Niners know it could be better. They know they could be better. "We have not arrived yet," Mariucci said. "This team is not satisfied with being 6-2. There's a hunger to be better and keep working, and I know we'll do that. I'm proud of these guys. We're very eager to get started on the second half of the season because there's so much to work on, so many areas that we can improve upon, and I think this team is ready and willing to do that."

In the locker room Monday - the day after a 28-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco's first victory over a team with a winning record in 36 games - it was the same kind of sentiment.

"No, we're not satisfied," defensive tackle Bryant Young said. "We still have another eight games before the season's over with - the regular season. And the second part of our schedule is pretty tough. So, really, it's just beginning." As Young's words suggest, the Niners are thinking playoffs. Why shouldn't they be? They have the second-ranked offense in the NFL, and their defense - before taking a step back against the Saints - had climbed into the league's top 10. The Niners are a year ahead of schedule in the eyes of many observers, but perhaps their strong start shouldn't be considered such a surprise. Dating back to the end of last season, they are 10-4 in their last 14 games.

"I think that the expectation level has certainly been raised," general manager Terry Donahue said. "I mean, who are we kidding? Players, coaches, management, ownership and everybody else is flat thinking we've got to get to the playoffs now. We've got a shot at it, and we've got to get there. So, the bar has been raised. I mean, we're in the heart of it with a lot of good teams. We're thinking playoffs, absolutely."


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