Harbaugh/Smith combo one win from NFC West title
Frank Gore has never reached the postseason. Same goes for Alex Smith and Patrick Willis. Vernon Davis, too. But now, finally, some of the Niners’ biggest homegrown stars are on the cusp of getting there at last. They can do it before their home fans with a victory Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, an outcome that would wrap up San Francisco’s first NFC West crown and playoff berth since 2002.
That’s a nine-year wait for a team that became accustomed to and synonymous with winning and playoffs while building one of the greatest enduring dynasties in the history of professional sports during the 1980s and 1990s.
Needless to say, this is one week when the word playoffs is not off limits as a talking point for coach Jim Harbaugh's focused bunch, who at 9-2 have a 4½-game lead over second-place Seattle with five games to play. Seattle beat Philadelphia on Thursday night to improve to 5-7.
In this case, it doesn't go against Harbaugh's credo regarding looking too far ahead.
"Absolutely, we're talking about it," Smith said.
"For anyone who's only been here, obviously this is new territory for us," the quarterback continued. "Something we've talked about every year and now all of a sudden to have it in our hands and the chance to clinch, it's great. No question, this is what you work so hard for. We've put ourselves in a good situation and now we just need to go out on Sunday and finish it."
Harbaugh is using it as motivation for the first-place Niners, who were eager to return to work after a 16-6 loss at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night to Harbaugh's big brother, John.
"It's my seventh year here. To be in a position like this is great," Gore said.
Beating the Rams will officially lock up the spot San Francisco has known it will have for weeks. The 49ers are playing for postseason positioning, too. If they stay on course over the season's final month, San Francisco will secure a first-round bye.
"Whenever you have the opportunity to close something out, you've got to do it as soon as possible," said center Jonathan Goodwin, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Saints two years ago. "As long as there's still hope for other teams, they still have a chance. It's important to close things out right away. You never know what can happen in this league. As soon as you get the opportunity to finish something, you need to."
Gore could be headed for a double dose of celebration Sunday. The two-time Pro Bowl running back has 7,323 career yards rushing and needs only 22 to pass the late Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for most in franchise history. Perry died April 25 at age 84.
“I’ve been here for seven years, and a lot of us in this locker room have been here a while and been through tough times here,” Gore said. “The goal for us is to make the playoffs, and this is the closest we’ve ever been. The big picture is us winning the game. I would be real happy if we can do it as a team and I can do it as an individual getting the record.”
Harbaugh is all for his players gearing up for the Rams (2-9) by thinking about their next step: playoffs in January. Only long-snapper Brian Jennings was part of the last 49ers' postseason team in 2002.
"Sure, not just allow it but encourage it. How do you know where you're going to get to if you don't know what the goal is or where you stand?" Harbaugh said.
Before the season, St. Louis was widely considered a contender to win a division known as the NFC Worst last year – when Seattle won at 7-9, the first division winner in history with a losing record.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has taken his lumps. He has fumbled 10 times and lost a league-leading seven, five on sacks.
"I've never had a season like this before where things don't go your way so many weeks in a row," Bradford said. "But no matter what happens, especially with the quarterback position, you can't lose confidence. I still have all the confidence in the world in myself and my teammates. Every week when we install the game plan on Tuesday night and I'm with (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels), I look at it and I'm like, `Gosh we've got some good stuff and we're going to tear it up this week.'"
St. Louis will have two shots at playing spoiler against San Francisco: The teams play twice over the final five games, including in the season finale Jan. 1 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo isn't about to go back and point to every single thing that has gone wrong for his Rams, from all the injuries to missed chances and mistakes. He would rather not see the 49ers win the division this week. It's that simple. No analysis needed at this stage.
"I'm not a crystal ball guy. I know we have a game against the 49ers this weekend. The rest of it I'm not wrapping myself in," Spagnuolo said. "We're just trying to find a way to win a football game."
The 49ers have had ample prep time for the Rams. Players had last weekend off after a quick turnaround from a win against Arizona on Nov. 20 to flying cross-country to face the Ravens four days later.
Harbaugh would join George Seifert (1989) and Steve Mariucci (1997) as the only rookie head coaches in franchise history to win the NFC West in their first year. While many expected Harbaugh's influence to revitalize the franchise, San Francisco has exceeded expectations.
Spagnuolo knows Harbaugh has been the difference for a team that is unbeaten in its last nine home games against division opponents.
"A lot of the personnel's the same. I know I counted up a lot of guys, same guys we played in the second-to-the-last game of the season last year, and yet I think they've been very, very productive," Spagnuolo said. "They find ways to control the football. We've got a lot of respect for them."
Aside from finally getting back to the playoffs, that 25-17 loss at St. Louis in Week 16 last year is still plenty fresh.
It was after that defeat when the 49ers fired Mike Singletary. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula took over as interim coach for the final game – a blowout win over the Cardinals – and then Harbaugh came aboard in early January in a high-profile hiring from nearby Stanford.
Smith, sacked nine times against the Ravens, didn't start that must-win game with the Rams last Dec. 26 as Singletary went with now-departed Troy Smith.
Considering the roll these Niners are on, that all seems so long ago.
Yet linebacker Parys Haralson can find some parallels when it comes to bouncing back.
"You never want to lose but it also makes you tighten out on things you probably got lazy on, or see some things," he said. "Any time after a loss you don't like that feeling, so you're eager to go into the next week and try to improve and try to get a win. That's what I think this team will do."
A win that would be like no other the 49ers have had since the last time they finished with a winning record nine long seasons ago.
“That would be real big,” Gore said. “It would be a blessing to do it in front of our fans who have been here with us and behind us. We can get there and we can do it this Sunday, and I’ll celebrate a little if we do.”