Niners Keeping Heat on Packers

Don't laugh, Len Pasquarelli writes: The 49ers are for real. Thanks in part to Alex Smith, who is famous for being drafted No. 1 overall instead of Aaron Rodgers, San Francisco is the only team pushing Green Bay for homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Maybe because they play in a poor-stepsister division that a year ago produced the NFL's first-ever 8-8 champion, it's become fashionable this season to regard the San Francisco 49ers with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But the doubters, including this one, are inexorably being won over.

Especially after the 49ers' victory last Sunday against a very solid New York Giants team, the club's seventh straight win and arguably the most impressive of the season.

Yep, that's a packet of Purplesaurus Rex in the glass next to the laptop. And, oh, yeah, we're getting about ready to quaff down the Kool-Aid. It might be time to view the 49ers as more than simply a flimsy fluke.

At 8-1, the 49ers are the only team in the NFL besides the Green Bay Packers with fewer than two defeats, and they can clinch their turkey of a division by the time most of us are napping off our annual Tryptophan fix.

The 49ers have as many victories as the other three franchises in the NFC West have managed combined. But the fact San Francisco competes in the NFL's most blighted neighborhood shouldn't really affect the way rookie coach Jim Harbaugh's team is viewed, several players have suggested.

"You play the teams that are on the schedule, and you don't make apologies," defensive end Justin Smith, who on Sunday deflected Eli Manning's fourth-down pass, told The Sports Xchange. "Maybe the best thing about this team, and about (Harbaugh), is that we really don't look at that stuff. We just worry about playing good football every week and taking care of our own business."

Save for a Week 2 defeat against Dallas, when the 49ers squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, San Francisco has, indeed, played pretty good football.

There is a ton of credit to go around: Team president Jed York and ol' buddy John York, the team's co-chairman and owner, convinced Harbaugh to venture across the Bay when the former Stanford coach was being courted by other teams. Harbaugh hung his hat on quarterback Alex Smith, when others were ready to label the former No. 1 overall pick (in 2005) a first-round flop. The 49ers signed wide receiver Braylon Edwards as a free agent despite on- and off-field red flags. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio released one secondary starter and traded a second. The defensive unit that opened against the Giants last week featured six players who were either in their first year as starters, new to the franchise, or in new positions.

The 49ers don't rank in the top 10 offensively or defensively — although they are 11th in the latter — but they hang together as a team and they win. Statistically, the offense is only No. 25. The defense, notably, is first in fewest points allowed.

Harbaugh is a runaway favorite for Coach of the Year honors, and Smith, who has resurrected his career and rates as the league's No. 7 passer in terms of quarterback rating, will be a candidate for Comeback Player.

"But I don't know that anyone on this team thinks of himself as the star," said veteran cornerback Carlos Rodgers, a free agent addition who is tied for the league lead in interceptions with five. "(Harbaugh) has done a good job of having guys buy into the team concept. As a former player himself, he knows how important that is. And he knows what buttons to push. People believe in him and he kind of gets you to believe in yourself."

Nowhere is that truer than with Smith, who has largely been viewed as a guy who mostly handed the ball off to tailback Frank Gore, probably the closest the 49ers come to a star player, and tried not to lose the game. Ironically, Harbaugh may have done his quarterback and unwitting disservice when he alluded to him last week as a good game manager. New York defensive end Justin Tuck picked up on the theme, publically, and Smith took umbrage.

And then he took over the game with perhaps the best and most accurate passing performance of his career.

"Manage this," Smith noted afterward, taking a hardly subtle swipe at Tuck and at his remaining detractors.

It was a feistiness and a confidence not exhibited in San Francisco in several years. After all, the 49ers haven't posted a winning record since 2002, when they captured the NFC West title with a 10-6 mark. Since then, San Francisco has suffered through seven losing seasons in eight campaigns, and won five game or fewer in three of those years.

Said inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a first-year starter who ranks among the NFL leaders in tackles: "I don't know if we're the best team, but we're a team."

Pass the pitcher of Tropical Punch, please, because that may be enough.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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