Now you can call them the first-place 49ers.
A day after stretching their winning streak to four consecutive games, the Niners climbed into a tie for the NFC West lead - not to mention the best record in the NFL - when the St. Louis Rams lost 24-17 at home Monday night to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 49ers (8-2) visit the Rams (8-2) in two Sundays for a showdown that will be felt throughout the league. But Niners coach Steve Mariucci said on Monday that his team won't spend any time thinking about that game this week.
"We have no idea when we play St. Louis," Mariucci said. "We have one game on our schedule. It's 5:30 in 3Com." That's 5:30 p.m. Sunday at 3Com Park in San Francisco, where the Niners host the staggering Buffalo Bills (1-9) in a nationally televised game.
"I think Joe Theismann comes in and does an ESPN deal, right?" Mariucci said. "And we play the Buffalo Bills, who just got beat by Miami, and Miami scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to beat 'em, and that's all we think about: How do you beat Buffalo."
In a season during which many expected them just to battle to get back to .500, the Niners already have reached eight victories with six games remaining on the schedule. The playoffs are so close that a victory over the Bills might ultimately be enough to guarantee a playoff berth for the Niners, particularly with the way the rest of the conference is shaping up. NFC Central leader Chicago also has an 8-2 record. Green Bay is 7-3 and Atlanta and NFC East leader Philadelphia both are 6-4. Those teams would join the Rams and Niners as the NFC's six playoff representatives at this stage.
No other NFC team even has a winning record. "I don't dwell on it," Mariucci said. "I did show a playoff scenario (to the team) a week or two ago, because I know most of this team has no clue on who makes the playoffs and who doesn't, because it's the three divisional winners plus the next three best records and all that sort of thing, and I know our young guys probably are a little bit unaware of all that. So we threw it up and discussed it real quick. And the point was just to show how important that next game was. Otherwise, we just dwell on the game coming up."
Just the same, the Niners can't help but look at what is happening around them as they continue to hover at the top of the league. Defending NFC champion New York, defending NFC West champion New Orleans and defending NFC Central champion Minnesota all lost last week to continue their season-long struggles. The Saints are 5-5, the Giants 5-6 and Vikings 4-6.
"When NFC teams start losing, when it starts coming down to the playoff picture, that helps us," Mariucci said. "But we've got to take care of our own business, really. In so many ways, we control our own destiny, let's face it. And that's what you want. You don't want to be counting on somebody for help. You want to control your own destiny." Mariucci said that Monday afternoon. Then the Rams went out and lost later that evening.
Now the Niners really do control their own destiny.