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49ers hope to carry preseason momentum into opener

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)

Frank Gore believes this season will be different, that his San Francisco 49ers are finally ready to take that step to the playoffs after all the missed chances in an 8-8 season a year ago.

In coach Mike Singletary's mind, they have to.

The Niners are unbeaten in the preseason heading into their exhibition finale at home Thursday night against the San Diego Chargers. And while everybody knows these games don't count, San Francisco could use some momentum heading into its season opener at NFC West rival Seattle on Sept. 12.

The team has a returning quarterback in 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Smith - not to mention the same offensive coordinator in Jimmy Raye for consecutive seasons for the first time in seven years.

''It feels a lot different, especially just by the guys, man, how we work and have been together,'' Gore said after Tuesday morning's walkthrough practice. ''Especially having Alex, he's stepping up like a man. Especially having Jimmy Raye back, we don't have to start over. Around the time in camp, everybody who has the same coordinator, they can just move on from what they did last year and clean up all the mistakes. This year we have the chance to do that.''

Yet Gore is eager to see the entire offense intact. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis has yet to play because of a strained right knee, while second-year receiver Michael Crabtree is nursing a neck injury and also hasn't played. Their status for Thursday was still uncertain. Crabtree hasn't addressed his injury or spoken formally since the start of camp Aug. 1, declining multiple media requests.

Josh Morgan, the 49ers' healthy starting wideout at the moment, wants to do everything he can to have a breakout season and take pressure off Crabtree and Davis. Those two are likely to draw regular double-teams.

There are plenty of play-makers for Smith to look for in this offense.

''You always want to do better and see yourself get better every year,'' Morgan said. ''I call it the crazy 8's, man. My goal is 80 catches, eight touchdowns, 800 yards. I think that's a reasonable goal.''

Raye has seen improvement this offseason from Morgan, who is most dangerous in the short to intermediate routes. Morgan enters his third NFL season after starting 15 games last year. He had 52 catches for 527 yards and three touchdowns.

''I would think he would be a factor and his play will improve because of the other people on the field,'' Raye said.

Once those guys get on the field, that is.

Morgan isn't overly concerned about Crabtree and Davis not being in sync with Smith. They're all together in enough meetings that Morgan is convinced things will come together in a hurry in the regular season.

The 49ers know the importance of a fast start - and maintaining consistency for an entire season. They began 3-1 in 2009 and there was instantly talk of playoffs. Then things changed and San Francisco dropped its next four games and five of six. The 49ers also lost six straight road games, five in a row by a combined 19 points, before winning their season finale at St. Louis.

Consistency will be a big key if this team is going to end a seven-year postseason drought. Going 3-0 so far in the preseason is nice, but means little at this stage.

''I wouldn't say momentum because nothing really counts in the preseason,'' Morgan said. ''But I do feel we've got that camaraderie as a team. We are basically gelling together, the whole offense, the defense, the special teams. Things are starting to click. You see the plays that we can make, the plays that are going to be made on Sundays. You get excited because of the talent we've got. The main thing in preseason is you want to see execution.''

Notes: Backup RB Brian Westbrook (hamstring) and LT Joe Staley (knee sprain) sat out the afternoon's full practice and were listed as day to day. ... The 49ers announced that Brandon Dale, a 16-year-old cancer patient who visited their facility with his family in May, died Tuesday. He came to team headquarters as part of the ''49ers wish fulfillment'' to spend the day with his favorite team. Dale had a rare form of liver cancer.

Tagged: Browns, 49ers, Frank Gore, Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree

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