Streaking 49ers could clinch division this month
All along, the San Francisco 49ers have made it clear they intend to reach the playoffs without depending on anybody else to help them get there - without watching games late in the season with their fate in limbo and needing one team to beat another.
At this rate, San Francisco shouldn't have a problem. The NFC West-leading Niners (7-1) own a commanding five-game division lead and could lock up their spot in two weeks if they keep winning and Arizona and Seattle both lose their next two.
For Frank Gore and all the other 49ers who have never been to the playoffs, let alone on the cusp of a division title, clinching this month would be a thrill. San Francisco could secure the franchise's first playoff spot since 2002 by beating the Cardinals on Nov. 20 at Candlestick Park if all parties cooperate.
''That'd be a big thing. One goal, we're trying not to let another team have to help us get to the playoffs - let us do that so we won't have to sit down Thursday or Monday night and hope for a team to win so this team's got to lose and all that,'' defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said Monday. ''We're trying to secure a playoff spot now so we don't have to worry about that later in the season.''
While first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said last week he would look at the standings in December to determine how many wins his team still needed to reach its goal, he might not have to wait that long. He could have the West won before that must-watch Thanksgiving showdown with his big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens back East. San Francisco is 4-0 on the road for the first time since 1992, and all of those victories have come in the Eastern time zone. This marks the first time the 49ers have won at least four games with a 10 a.m. Pacific start in one season since 1990, when the team went 5-0 in such contests.
The 49ers are riding their first six-game winning streak in 14 years after Sunday's 19-11 victory at Washington - and a win this Sunday at home against the NFC East-leading New York Giants (6-2) would go a long way toward getting a first-round playoff bye.
''If we beat the Giants and can get it, we'd be glad to have it,'' said Gore, who had his fifth straight 100-yard game against the Redskins but is nursing a sore left ankle. ''The Giants this week, they're a great team and they're coming here and we'll try to do whatever it takes to get a win.''
While Harbaugh's team is so close to being unbeaten at this stage - the 49ers lost 27-24 in overtime to the Cowboys in Week 2 - he refuses to evaluate the progress so far.
''I really don't assess it. We would have liked to have been 8-0 at the midseason point,'' Harbaugh said Monday.
San Francisco, headed for the franchise's first winning record since 2002, already has one more win than it did in 2010 under fired coach Mike Singletary after a shocking 0-5 start.
Harbaugh joined Jim Mora, in 2004 with the Falcons, as the only rookie head coaches to lead their team to a five-game improvement from the previous season through eight games since 1970.
''A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people put us out because we didn't have an offseason, we had a whole new staff, we're going to be lost and running around with our heads cut off,'' Francois said. ''But with the dedication and all the time everybody put aside to build it we weren't going to have no lacking. We fell off one game with Dallas, but after that we just had to put everything together. We just feel like this is a team, it's not individual play no more. It's actually a team.''
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards experienced a strong start last season with the New York Jets winning nine of their first 11. He believes his new team has only begun to reach its potential - a sentiment Gore seconds.
''We had already reached our peak,'' Edwards said in the locker room Sunday night. ''We had everything in place. We had been running an offense for a couple of years that was in place and we were at our peak. ... We're not anywhere near where we can be and that was the difference between here and (the Jets). We were already at our peak. We haven't come close.''
Harbaugh insists he won't change anything this week in terms of the approach, even as his 49ers put themselves in prime position to win the division that was known as the NFC Worst last season when Seattle came out on top with a 7-9 record.
''We are going to keep doing what we've been doing and that's focus on what we are doing now and have a great expectation for today's game-planning, for tomorrow's meetings, for tomorrow's practice,'' he said. ''That's the way we've been going about it, no need to look ahead. We didn't have any expectations at the start, we didn't say, `Here's what our record needs to be at the midway point,' predicting what would happen or what the record would be. We've got a lot of questions to answer that we keep asking ourselves.''
Gore said X-rays on his ankle were negative. He was clearly hurting after the game and needed help getting off the postgame podium in Washington.
The two-time Pro Bowler said he expects to practice this week and play against the Giants.
''I'll be all right. I'm cool. Just checking up some things on my body. Yeah, I'll be all right,'' Gore said.
Defensive end Ray McDonald, who missed his first game since 2008 because of a hamstring injury, said Monday he expects to be ready come Sunday.
''I'm doing better, good to go this week,'' McDonald said.