Nobody's laughing at Niners now

Upon coming to the 49ers last season, head coach Mike Nolan told his team and the media that the team's goal was to win the NFC West. The media snickered.

Everyone who watched the 49ers during their 2-14 season of 2004 knew the 49ers did not have the talent to show such a dramatic improvement in one season, even with a new coaching staff coming in.

But after the 49ers' 20-13 victory over the Rams, Nolan was asked if winning the NFC West was possible.

"It's our outstanding goal," Nolan said. "Our reasonable goal is to make the playoffs."

This time, nobody is laughing.

The 49ers enter their game Sunday against the Eagles at Monster Park with a lot of confidence. If they continue to improve on their first two games of the season, the 49ers believe that, yes, making the playoffs is a reasonable goal.

Facing the Eagles is a big test for the 49ers, who were crushed 42-3 early last season at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

"This is an interesting game for us," Nolan said. "It can be a statement game."

The 49ers made some mistakes in their seven-point victory over the Rams. They made too many errors in their opening-game loss to the Cardinals. The margin of error figures to be tighter this week against the Eagles.

Last season, the 49ers could not have dreamed of playing anything but a perfect game and winning against a good team. With an improved roster, the 49ers have already shown that they can overcome their own mistakes to remain competitive.

"We nearly did it in Week 1, and we did it in Week 2," Nolan said. "But we all know those are two games against Arizona and St. Louis. We have Philadelphia this week and we know they are a good football team.

"You can overcome things against some, and against others, you can't. I believe this week going into the game, that is one of the things I'll stress. We got Philadelphia. Let's make sure we understand that with the better team we face, turnovers can be more costly than against teams you can get back into the game on. That's not to discredit the team we beat, but I think everyone realizes the Eagles are a pretty good football team."

And, by all appearances, the 49ers are getting there, too.

Quarterback Alex Smith said the team is getting to the point where they are not going to be having any good losses - or a game that they feel good about even though it resulted in a loss.

"No, but we're getting there," Smith answered when asked if the 49ers have arrived. "It's a process. Obviously, we expect to win every game, but there is a different sense the next day looking back on things. You hope to get to that situation where unless you win you don't feel good about things. We're raising expectations and expect to compete and win games."

The rising expectations have come because of improved play on both sides of the ball. The 49ers' offense, which ranked last in the league last season, averaging just 224.2 yards a game, has rolled up 376.5 yards through two games.

And Smith said when he watches the game film, he sees areas in which the 49ers can improve on what they've already accomplished through two games.

"It's a different feeling," Smith said of watching film of the offense this season. "Obviously, from my perspective, this is only just the beginning. We sit there and watch and see how much better we can play. And if we do little things here and there, all of a sudden we could've been that much better. Last year, maybe there were more things or bigger deals."

Improvements have also come on defense, where the 49ers have recorded nine sacks after producing just 28 through the 16-game regular season a year ago. The 49ers ranked last in the league, surrendering 391.2 total yards per game. In the first two games, that number is down to 316.0.

The 49ers' secondary had many more blown coverages early last season than they had in the first two games, which came against a couple of the league's best receiving tandems. In the second year using the same defensive system, there is more of a familiarity with the scheme for the players.

"And we're still working through some of those things, to be honest," Nolan said. "It's not clean right now. I don't want to sound like we've got things corrected. Certainly, we've made our share of mistakes."

But at least now, the 49ers appear as if they have a better chance to compensate for their mistakes.

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There is no doubting that 49ers running back Frank Gore has a passion for playing football. Every night, Gore said he watches a highlight film of himself from his senior year at Coral Gables (Fla.) High, where he rushed for 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns.

Gore said it reminds himself of what kind of running back he was in high school before he sustained torn ACLs in both knees in college. He believes he can become a dominant NFL back, too. It also helps him feel as if he's not too far from home. His mother, Liz, remains a coast away in Florida as she awaits a kidney transplant. She's been on dialysis since Gore was in the 11th grade.

Gore has gotten off to a strong start this season, with 214 yards and three touchdowns rushing. He also has eight receptions for 93 yards. He ranks fourth among the NFL's rushing leaders and is second in the league with 307 total yards from scrimmage.

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Left tackle Jonas Jennings watched last week's game against the Rams from the sideline with an ankle sprain. But Jennings kept a close eye on his replacement, Adam Snyder.

"I felt like I was coaching," Jennings said. "Snyder did a good job. There were no sacks. His worst set might have been on the touchdown."

Snyder was blocking Rams defensive end Anthony Hargrove on Smith's blind side. Smith delivered a 72-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant a split-second before Hargrove could get a hand on Smith.

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Smith is ranked fifth in the NFC with a 93.5 quarterback rating. Smith's 521 yards passing rank sixth in the NFC. Last season, Smith threw for 875 yards in seven starts with a passer rating of 40.8.

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Receiver Antonio Bryant has shown some flashes of his anger in the first two games. He has been held to just one catch for 34 yards in the first halves of the 49ers' first two games. He was clearly agitated on the field and was seen venting to receivers coach Jerry Sullivan as he left the field Sunday against the Rams.

"He seems to do better when he's ticked off by halftime," Nolan quipped.

Despite his slow starts, Bryant ranks third in the NFL with 245 receiving yards on eight catches. He had a 72-yard TD reception early in the second half against the Rams. He leads the NFL with an average of 30.6 yards per catch.

Said Nolan, "He understands that sometimes you have to wait a little longer for good things to happen."

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Linebacker Manny Lawson played almost every snap in the season opener against the Cardinals, but Nolan made a conscious effort to get the rookie some extended breaks in the second game.

Lawson, who was on the sideline for about 20 plays against the Rams, came through with a strong performance. He recorded two sacks, had two quarterback pressures and had another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

"He got some breathers from Brandon Moore, and Brandon helped us defensively by being able to rest Manny," Nolan said. "He was fresher on some plays."

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The 49ers added defensive lineman Damane Duckett (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) to the active roster from the practice squad. To make room for Duckett, the 49ers released pass-rush specialist Roderick Green, whom the club claimed off waivers from the Ravens after the final cuts. Green was active for one game but did not record any tackles.

Fullback Zak Keasey was re-signed to the practice squad.

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--- TE Vernon Davis was the intended target on just one pass last week, failing to come down with a catchable ball in the end zone. "I thought he did a nice job of clearing out some other routes for other receivers," Nolan said.
--- OL Adam Snyder started at left tackle in place of Jonas Jennings last week, and he might be switched to left guard this week with Larry Allen expected to miss another couple weeks. Snyder is considered the team's best backup offensive lineman, and he might replace Tony Wragge, who played well in his first NFL start since 2002.
--- FS Mike Adams has developed into a solid defensive back in his first full season of playing one position. Adams ranks second on the team with 16 tackles and he has broken up one pass. The 49ers plan to begin talking about a contract extension for Adams, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
--- SS Tony Parrish has started both games but splits time with Mark Roman. Parrish has seven tackles in two games, and is also seeing time on special teams. Parrish has made two tackles on the kickoff coverage team.
--- NT Anthony Adams saw four snaps at fullback in the 49ers' short-yardage situations. Three of the plays did not get into the end zone or gain first downs.
--- WR Brandon Williams, a third-round draft pick, has not suited up for the first two games. Williams is considered the team's top punt returner, but the 49ers have gone with Arnaz Battle in that role because they did not want to suit up five receivers. Now, with WR Taylor Jacobs out with a hamstring injury, Williams is likely to suit up and return punts.

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