San Francisco 49ers: Are They Contenders or Pretenders?

James StantonContributor IIIOctober 4, 2011

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 02: Running back LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles is tackled by linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) of the San Francisco 49ers  during an NFL football game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 2, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 49ers defeated the Eagles 24-23. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It's still early in the young NFL season, but the San Fransisco 49ers sit atop the NFC West at 3-1, a full two games over their division rivals.  Playoff games aren't played in September, but the mindset that Jim Harbaugh has managed to instill in the Niners' players speaks volumes for the approach he has taken in bringing the team back to relevancy: One game at a time.

Harbaugh has brought the team along on his terms, instilling the principles neglected by previous Head Coach, Mike Singletary.  After a thrilling, come from behind victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, much of the press has been more concerned with the magnitude of the Eagles' failures in the loss, as opposed to the successes of the 49ers.  This has much to do with the national perception that NFL fans have in regards to San Francisco: Losers in the worst division in football.

With that said, the win was a win nonetheless.  A huge win on the road against a superior opponent never comes easy, but the 49ers found a way to come back from a 20-point deficit to win the game.  What stands out more than anything from this victory is how much Harbaugh has done with virtually the same players Singletary had during his tenure.

Looking back at how the 49ers stormed back in the second half, there was just no way Singletary could have gotten the team to play that hard in the second half after falling by 20.  The Niners of old would have packed it in or found a way to lose the game if they did manage to get back in it. However, Harbaugh's team believes in him and he believes in them. Each week, the team shows improvement.

Marginal, yet steady, is Harbaugh's motif.

With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming to town on Sunday, the 49ers could make an even bigger statement by beating another good team in back-to-back weeks.  Last season, the Bucs hung a home shutout on the Niners.  That game exemplified the ineptitude that the Niners have dwelled in since 2003.  Hanging with the good teams doesn't put W's in the win column. Beating them does.  And that's what Harbuagh's managed to do with the 49ers. Beating Tampa Bay would not only show that the Niners can beat a good team, it will also wash away last season's humiliating defeat.

As far as the aforementioned perception of the team goes, many pundits will argue that the Eagles are not a good team at this point in the season.  Even if they aren't playing well at the moment, they are still a better team than San Francisco, but the 49ers wanted the win more than the Eagles did and it showed.

Simply put, no matter what the 49ers accomplish, there will be more detractions than praise.

The only way to swing the pendulum back the other way is to continue winning and improving as the season goes along.  The 49ers have been well known for their midseason slumps over the years, so that will also be a test.

Winning back-to-back road games from behind was a step.  But does beating the Eagles make the 49ers a contender? It's still too early to tell at this point.

If the team continues to play hard, believing that they can win as opposed to hoping that they could win, will slowly but surely, return the once proud franchise back to relevancy.