49ers replay: Now No. 8 in NFC playoff order

Throughout the season, when the 49ers failed to respond to the challenge and wilted against good teams, 49ers coach Mike Nolan blamed it on his team's lack of maturity. Perhaps the 49ers are finally coming of age as they move within striking distance in the NFC playoff pecking order.

The 49ers pulled off their biggest victory in Nolan's 26 games as head coach, and the club has incredibly gotten itself into the NFC playoff picture. The 49ers improved to 5-5 with a 20-14 victory Sunday over the Seahawks, and are one game out of the NFC West lead and the wild-card race.

The 49ers will take a three-game win streak into Sunday's game at the Rams. It is the first time the 49ers have strung together three victories since the middle of the 2002 season. The improved play is a result of running back Frank Gore's production and a suddenly formidable defense.

Gore rushed for a 49ers record 212 yards on 24 carries, eclipsing the previous team high of Charlie Garner, who gained 201 yards against the Cowboys in 2000. Gore has rushed for 1,043 yards - already the most for a 49ers back since Garrison Hearst gained 1,206 in 2001.

Three weeks ago, the 49ers' defense was surrendering 33.6 points a game, on pace to give up the most points in NFL history. Since trailing 41-0 at halftime to the Bears on Oct. 29, the 49ers have surrendered just three touchdowns in 14 quarters.

"I'm not going to say we've arrived," 49ers defensive lineman Young said. "There's still a lot of room for improvement. We're still a young team and the sky's the limit for us. If we continue to get better as the season goes on, who knows what can happen for us? But we haven't arrived, yet."

The 49ers are in sole possession of second place in the NFC West heading into their game Sunday against the Rams, whom the 49ers defeated 20-13 two months ago for their first victory of the season.

The 49ers currently rank No. 8 in the NFC playoff pecking order, just two slots out of the sixth and final wild-card slot. Only six NFC teams have a better record than the 49ers.

The victory over the Seahawks was clearly the 49ers' most impressive victory in several seasons. They built a 20-0 lead at halftime and then had to hold onto the victory despite giving the Seahawks some late scoring opportunities.

Gore's only blemish on the day was a fumble with 1:53 remaining after the 49ers had held the Seahawks on a fourth-and-1 run. But cornerback Walt Harris came through with his second interception of the day.

A minute later, kicker Joe Nedney missed his second short field goal of the game to give the Seahawks yet another chance. Again, the 49ers' defense closed the door.

"To be honest with you, I'm thankful for it," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It builds character, it builds confidence, and it builds mental toughness. It's not often you see a team trying to turn the corner play a team as good as the Seattle football team and have some of those things happen at the end of the game and still hang on and win it. So I'm very pleased with that."

--- CB Walt Harris recorded two interceptions, giving him a career-high six for the season. His previous high was five interceptions in 1997, his second season in the league. Harris leads the NFC in interceptions.
--- FS Keith Lewis had another strong game as he solidifies his grasp on the starting job. Lewis recorded one interception and one fumble recovery. In the past two games, Lewis has two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
--- TE Vernon Davis returned to action after missing six games with a broken right leg. Davis played only five snaps in the game and did not have a pass thrown his way.
--- QB Alex Smith had an efficient game, completing 19 of 25 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Smith also rushed for his first NFL touchdown, a 1-yard bootleg in the second quarter.
--- LT Jonas Jennings had a strong game in run-blocking and pass-protection against Seahawks LB Julian Peterson. Peterson was held without a sack and had just two tackles. Jennings sustained a left ankle injury late in the game and his status for Sunday's game against the Rams is questionable.
--- CB Shawntae Spencer did not play in the fourth quarter due to a right ankle sprain. His status for Sunday's game is questionable.

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