Okay, stick with me here, folks.
I know that the 49ers gutted out a win against the now 5-2 Cincinnati Bengals. The next week, after a working vacation in Youngstown, OH, the 49ers beat the “Dream Team” in Philadelphia. They dismantled a solid Tampa Bay Buccaneers team.
“Handshakegate” certainly overshadowed a very impressive win against the Detroit Lions in Week 6. Even the 49ers’ loss was not a bad one because they lost in overtime to a solid, albeit inconsistent, Dallas Cowboys.
How can the win against the hapless Cleveland Browns be the most impressive win all year? The Browns were the team, after all, that only managed a 6-3 home win against the putrid Seattle Seahawks in Week 7. The Browns were playing without Peyton Hillis and have struggled all year on the offensive side of the ball. With the exception of the Browns’ 45-yard touchdown pass to Josh Cribbs in the fourth quarter, the offense did not look great all day.
This was the 49ers' most impressive win in 2011 because they played like a good team. It is nearly as hard to go 0-16 in the NFL as it is to go 16-0.
The parity in the league is so great that even bad teams will catch an opponent on an off day and beat them. Nothing could prove this point better than the St. Louis Rams' 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints a week after the Saints waxed the Indianapolis Colts 62-7.
The nature of the league is such that even good teams are going to have an off week.
On Sunday, it did not look that way in the first half for the 49ers. The offense was pounding the ball and Alex Smith was managing the game efficiently. Even with an impressive goal-line stand by the Browns defense, the 49ers still had a solid 17-3 lead at halftime.
It appeared that the 49ers were going to buck the trend of teams coming off the bye week, whose record was only 4-9 coming into Week 8. The new CBA requires a minimum of four days off for the players, and Jim Harbaugh gave the 49ers six days off, which looked like a genius move at the start of the third quarter.
However, the offense got into a funk. Colt McCoy was not making a case for the Pro Bowl, but he was starting to find a rhythm. McCoy threw a bad interception with 4:32 left in the third quarter to Dashon Goldson that could have been at least a field goal for the Browns.
The 49ers played decent defense through the second half until McCoy found Cribbs for the 45-yard touchdown. All of a sudden, the Browns were within a score at 17-10 and plenty of time remaining on the clock.
The 49ers had played poorly on offense the entire second half, so there was cause for concern when they got the ball back.
But then they did what good teams do: they finished off the game when they weren’t playing well.
Ted Ginn started it off with a decent return to the 25-yard line. The 49ers had a good mix of pass and run to move down the field (also aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty by D'Qwell Jackson) to find themselves at a 3rd-and-3 on the Browns’ 32-yard line.
Jim Harbaugh came up with a creative call to throw to Isaac Sopoaga coming out of the backfield. If it doesn’t work, then the 49ers are faced with a 50-yard field goal to ice the game. However, like good teams do, they executed the play to Sopoaga and put the game away on a chip-shot 26-yarder by David Akers.
It is easy for a team to get up for a game against a tough opponent. It is also easy to lose focus against a bad team. This is especially true when playing a bad team at home after a bye week.
I had not been a huge believer in this team yet this year because they have found their way to mediocrity since 2002. However, they are doing things that a good team does: finding a way to turn it on when they need to.
It is one thing for a team to come back when it is behind, but upper-echelon teams know how to put a game away. The 49ers have learned how to flip the switch.