This wasn't the way it was supposed to end. And it certainly never seemed like this was the way it…
NFC West in hand, Niners now looking for more
The 49ers had just returned to the celebratory locker room after clinching the NFC West and ending an eight-year playoff drought when players immediately turned their attention to several televisions around the room.
They were just in time to catch the thrilling final seconds of the unbeaten Green Bay Packers' 38-35 road win over the Giants. The Niners (10-2) might be the new division champions at last, yet one message resounded: This is just the first step. They care a whole lot about trying to keep up with the defending Super Bowl champions – and at the very least putting themselves in position for an eventual playoff showdown with the Packers.
There will be plenty of scoreboard watching to come, and perhaps some rooting against the Pack.
''It's come up, sure it will come up more in the next few weeks,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said of watching the weekly results. ''It has significance.''
Frank Gore, among a group of playoff first-timers that includes Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, doesn't plan to rest in the remaining weeks. He is determined to do his part to put the 49ers in the best playoff position possible.
The 49ers control the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and need just to take care of their own business to assure themselves of a first-round playoff bye. Meanwhile, they could still have a shot at the top seed if they finish strong and Green Bay slumps in the season's final four games.
''Nah, nah, we're playing ball,'' Gore said Monday, a day after passing the late Joe Perry to become the franchise's career rushing leader. ''We've got four more games left, man, so we're playing ball. We're trying to win these last four and hopefully whatever happens with Green Bay, we'll get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and it would be great for us.''
Any postgame fun following a 26-0 rout of the St. Louis Rams on Sunday to wrap up the division was well over by Monday, when the team turned its attention to Sunday's game at Arizona. Linebackers Tavares Gooden and Parys Haralson were on the field Monday morning moving sleds in an optional workout.
Harbaugh and Co. want to make a mark in the playoffs. The focus now is winning out and getting that first-round bye.
''Everything has it's time and place. We have a long way to go,'' defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. ''Some people look at it as a bad thing that we've got a long way to go.''
Team president Jed York didn't hide the fact he hopes to see a lot more from the 49ers the rest of the way.
York stood in the winning locker room Sunday night in a drastically different scene than the last time he did so: after a 25-17 loss at St. Louis in Week 16 of 2010 that marked the final game for fired coach Mike Singletary.
''I had the flu that day so that wasn't a real fun day for me. This time is a little bit better,'' York said. ''I knew that we had talent on this team and I've said that a lot. It's great to see it all come together. Even at 10-2 there are things we can do a lot better on the field and off the field and that's what we're going to be working on.''
York and general manager Trent Baalke can take pride in the fact they lured Harbaugh to the 49ers despite nearly a decade of losing.
Harbaugh came aboard in January, hired away from nearby Stanford on a $25 million, five-year contract, and challenged to pull off an immediate turnaround. Little did anybody know it would be such a drastic transformation so soon.
York was a junior in college at Notre Dame the last time the 49ers made the playoffs in 2002.
''It's a great accomplishment. The expectation is to win the division,'' he said. ''That's the first step, the first milestone for us this year. That's what we set out to do. I'm proud of the guys for their work ethic, their fight, but we need to keep this up for the rest of the season and carry this into the playoffs. There's a lot of work that we need to do if we want to get there. We can't let up. ... You have to be prepared. Sometimes celebrating this early isn't always a good thing. We need to make sure we keep our heads down, we keep focused and we keep moving forward.''
All along, Harbaugh has preached the notion of getting one percent better each day. He hopes his guys continue to apply that philosophy as the season winds down and they prepare for the NFL's big stage.
Still, he wants the players to cherish what they've done so far.
''It's a great thing winning the division,'' Harbaugh said. ''Much like a diploma or a certificate you might receive in school, it has your name on it and what you did. Put that in a little frame, put it up on the wall, feel good about that accomplishment and then move forward to the next goal.''
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