San Francisco 49ers TE Vernon Davis (85) Surrounded After a Touchdown Catch Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Week 4
At 8-1, the San Francisco 49ers are almost guaranteed a playoff spot for the first time since 2002. They are playing an old school brand of smash mouth football under new head coach Jim Harbaugh and have not lost since Week 2.
It has been a long time coming for a franchise which, in recent years, had fallen from grace.
From 2003-2010, the 49ers struggled. They were the worst team in the league in 2004 at 2-14.
The team saw a rotating door of unknown or otherwise ineffective quarterbacks in that span. These included Tim Rattay, Cody Pickett, Trent Dilfer, J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill and Troy Smith.
Current QB Alex Smith's career was a roller coaster ride of mediocrity before 2011.
Since being drafted first overall in 2005, he has worked with seven offensive coordinators in seven seasons.
Long before this season, fans and pundits wondered if Smith was a victim of constantly changing schemes or just unable to compete in the NFL.
It seems we have our answer.
Alex Smith's emergence as a reliable QB is one reason to watch out for the 49ers. Here are five others.
For many seasons, RB Frank Gore has been depended on to fuel the offense.
With uneven QB play before 2011, the 49ers had no backup plan to compensate for Gore's occasional bad game.
This season, Gore is finally getting help.
Rookie Kendall Hunter is the team's No. 2 back and has filled in nicely. He averages six runs per game and nearly five yards per run.
He doesn't have huge stats, but the yards Hunter does gain are important. He has runs of 11, 14, 17, 26 and 44 yards this season—gains which take a huge burden off of Gore.
Last week, Gore was hobbled with knee and ankle problems against the New York Giants. He carried the ball six times for zero yards.
But his teammates picked up the slack and got the win.
Hunter came through with 40 rushing yards and a touchdown, while Alex Smith connected with eight different receivers for 242 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
It may be little consolation for the 49ers and their fans, but a loss in overtime is better than getting flat-out destroyed.
In Week 2, the Dallas Cowboys played at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Though the 49ers led 21-14 after three quarters, they surrendered a 10-3 fourth quarter to put the game in overtime.
After a punt by the 49ers and a 77-yard pass from Tony Romo to Jesse Holley, the game was sealed.
Cowboys K Dan Bailey hit an easy 19-yard chip shot three minutes into the extra period and handed San Francisco its only loss.
The 49ers led much of the game, but the loss was probably deserved. The usually stout defense was carved up by Romo's 345 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Miles Austin and Jason Witten each recorded over 100 yards, with Austin nabbing three touchdowns.
Still, it was the 49ers who broke Romo's ribs and I'm sure he won't forget it.
Already with a rejuvenated offense in San Francisco, this is a team still fueled by defense.
The 49ers top the NFL in points allowed (15.3) and rush yards allowed (73.2). They are also second in the NFL in forced fumbles with 12.
Only one team—the Philadelphia Eagles—has recorded over 100 rushing yards against the 49ers this season.
The front seven is led by linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, with help on the line coming from Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
The secondary has been suspect, but one shining star is former Redskins CB Carlos Rogers.
He is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with five. Over a six-season span in Washington, he had just eight.
It's not always pretty, but the 49ers keep winning and their defense has been a huge catalyst.
The core players for the 49ers have been around since as far back as 2005. Alex Smith and Frank Gore were both drafted that year.
Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker arrived in 2006.
The list goes on and on. This is a team whose players suffered through bad to mediocre seasons under Mike Nolan (2005-08) and Mike Singletary (2008-10).
Though I miss Singletary's emotional press conferences, I do not miss his predictable play calling.
The 49ers replaced some of that emotion with the offensive-minded Jim Harbaugh.
The team finally operates on offense, and they are doing it with most of their own draft picks and tenured players from seasons past.
With the exception of Carlos Rogers, the main contributors of 2011 have already dealt with losing seasons in San Francisco.
Harbaugh has brought a fresh approach and chemistry to this team. Alex Smith's confidence is restored. Nowadays, you'll see him scrambling out of the pocket and squeezing passes into tight coverage.
And as for that bit about Harbaugh being less emotional? Ask Lions coach Jim Schwartz about that.
It's easy to base the 49ers' success on the fact they play in the dreadful NFC West, but what team wouldn't take advantage?
But before we pardon the 49ers for this break, let's not devalue what they have done this season.
They have only played one divisional game, a win over Seattle in Week 1. They are 4-0 on the road, including a win at then 5-0 Detroit.
The Buccaneers came to San Francisco with a 3-1 record and were dismantled 48-3. Last week's 27-20 win over the Giants was another standout.
Five of the 49ers' remaining seven games are in the NFC West, meaning five potential wins. It begins Sunday at home against Arizona.
But they shouldn't get too cocky. Despite their division opponents' records, these teams each have signature moments.
Still, the 49ers are in complete control of the division and should come away with at least three more wins against the NFC West.
The team can't afford to look ahead to the playoffs yet, but I sure can.
Josh Greller has been an editorial intern for Bleacher Report since September. He is a Bay Area resident and has written for various sports sites and startup companies.