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Harbaugh has struck gold so far in San Francisco

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Harbaugh is quick to say his players are good, but he doesn't want them to think they've arrived. (Getty Images)  
Harbaugh is quick to say his players are good, but he doesn't want them to think they've arrived. (Getty Images)  

The San Francisco 49ers are where few expected them -- comfortably atop the NFC West -- so, naturally, the question is: What's so different about these guys, other than the head coach? Well, try this: The 49ers seem to know how to do something they haven't for years.

They know how to close games.

Nowhere was there a better example than last weekend's come-from-behind shocker in Philadelphia, a game where the 49ers trailed by 20 in the second half ... in a hostile environment ... against a team desperate for victory ... and against Michael Vick.

Past 49ers clubs would have quit and gone home, absorbing a 20-to-30-point loss. This one did not, just as it did not the week before when it scored a come-from-behind victory in Cincinnati.

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"Nobody flinched," a delirious coach Jim Harbaugh told his players afterward. "Nobody got scared."

Maybe the rest of the NFC West should.

When Arizona's Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, the door was open for the 49ers to win their first division championship since 2002. They had the players. They had the opportunity. They just didn't have the right ... I don't know, attitude? ... and descended to another season of mediocrity.

OK, so they didn’t have the right quarterback, either, but the quarterback then is the quarterback now, and last time I checked Alex Smith was the central figure in that second-half comeback in Philadelphia.

Nope, there's something different about this team, and it's not just the new players, the new coaching staff or the results. It's the approach. The 49ers are never out of games. Better yet, they're in games they shouldn't be, and that's how you start rebuilding down-and-out franchises.

Get players to believe, then get them to produce, and so far, so good for San Francisco.

"They're good," Harbaugh said of his players on Monday, "and the longer it takes them to figure that out the better we'll all be. Because when people start thinking they've arrived that's when they stop working and doing the things that got them there."

The 49ers haven't arrived. Not by a long shot. But they're moving toward respectability, a word that hasn't been used around this franchise in nearly a decade. Granted, we're only four games into the season. But look what we've learned about San Francisco ... no, look what the 49ers learned about themselves: Namely, that no opponent or predicament or environment is too big. They can close out games where before they could not, would not and did not.

"We're just trying to get better every day," said team president and CEO Jed York. "We were 3-1 two years ago, too. Nobody is in the playoffs yet, and if anyone wants to jump to conclusions after four games they're mistaken. We don't put ourselves with the elite teams in the NFL because we're not there yet. Our only hope is that we keep improving."

From what I've seen, they have.

Rewind the videotape to the start of the 2009 season, and you'll see what I mean. The 49ers -- then 2-0 -- go to Minnesota to take on Brett Favre and the unbeaten Vikings and are within one snap of stealing a second straight road win when somehow, some way, Favre scrambles to throw a 32-yard dart to Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone with two seconds left.

Final score: Minnesota 27, San Francisco 24.

Now, fast forward to last season when San Francisco is on the verge of shutting down Atlanta ... in Atlanta, no less, where Matt Ryan loses about as often as William Sherman. Cornerback Nate Clements intercepts Ryan on what should be the Falcons' last drive, pushes the return down the left sideline and is tackled from behind by Roddy White ... who, it just so happens, forces a fumble the Falcons recover.

I think you can figure out what happens next. Final score: Atlanta 16, San Francisco 14.

The point is: The 49ers had chances to close out opponents in critical games before, but they usually blew them -- an all-too-familiar theme in the team's recent history. In the last two years, the club dropped 10 games where the margin was seven or fewer points and seven where it was no more than three.

That should tell you something. It does me. And what it says is that the 49ers found ways to lose.

Well, now they find ways to win, with Sunday's upset Exhibit A again. Where Clements fumbled away a game a year ago, this time it was the Eagles' Jeremy Maclin -- losing the ball when chased down from behind by San Francisco's Justin Smith.

The week before it was two interceptions of Andy Dalton in the last four minutes that clinched the victory, and I think you can see where this is going. Critical mistakes that used to unravel the 49ers now trip up their opponents.

I don't know why, but it's impossible to ignore the influence of Harbaugh. What his players did for him at the University of San Diego and Stanford the 49ers are doing now. In fact, it's not a stretch to imagine last weekend's upset accomplishing for San Francisco what a stunning 24-23 last-minute defeat of USC in Los Angeles did for Stanford in Harbaugh's first season there.

You gotta believe, right? Well, it looks as if they do in San Francisco.

"I give a lot of credit to Jim and Trent [Baalke, the team's general manager]," said York. "They work well together. It's hard enough to win in the NFL as it is, but you can't do it unless everyone is on the same page. It's nice to see us win two games on the road, but we need to keep getting better."

But they are, and that's why it may be time to start paying attention to San Francisco again.

Look, I'm not here to crown these guys the next New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers, but I am here to say there's something refreshingly different about this year's 49ers. When they were expected to fold, they would not, and when they were expected to screw up, they did not.

"Who's got it better than us?" Harbaugh asked players in the locker room after Sunday's victory.

"Noooooooooo-body," they shouted back.

Look at the NFC West. For the first time in a long time, they're right.

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