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Forget recent slide, real 49ers show up with stifling of Steelers

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Now that they've beaten Pittsburgh in a game with playoff implications, the question is: What are we to make of the San Francisco 49ers?

I know, they're a division champion, but are they a serious Super Bowl contender? The 49ers think so, and they made their case with a 20-3 hammering of Pittsburgh on Monday.

Had the Steelers won, they not only would have vaulted ahead of Baltimore into first in the AFC North; they almost surely would've clinched the division. With Cleveland and St. Louis left, it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh losing again, so the Steelers were reduced to a one-game season -- with Monday that game.

And they lost it.

I don't know what that says about Pittsburgh, but I know what it says about San Francisco -- and that's that you better wake up to these guys. They can run. They can pass. They can play defense ... brother, can they play defense. In fact, they haven't allowed a rushing touchdown all season, setting an NFL record Monday by pushing that streak to 14 games.

But that's not all. They don't commit turnovers. In fact, they have a league-low 10, and tell me that's not significant.

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It was Monday when Pittsburgh committed four, including three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions -- with none bigger than Carlos Rogers' pickoff of Roethlisberger on the opening series. Pittsburgh was rolling, Roethlisberger hadn't thrown an incompletion and the Steelers were camped at the San Francisco 19.

But that's when Rogers stepped in front of Mike Wallace to intercept Roethlisberger's pass in the end zone and set the tone for what was to come. I'm serious, and here's how I know: The Steelers never again were closer than the San Francisco 30.

"That play," safety Dashon Goldson said, "gave us momentum for the rest of the game."

But that's what you have to admire about these guys: Not only did they overcome the defending AFC champions; they overcame two power outages in Candlestick Park -- the second during the second quarter -- and the absence of star linebacker Patrick Willis, who missed his second successive game.

Still, they produced one of their best and most significant performances of the season -- on both sides of the ball -- and, yeah, I think that should get somebody's attention. It certainly got Pittsburgh's.

"The only way to beat the Steelers," coach Jim Harbaugh said, "is to play good football ... and I thought that's what we did."

Granted, Roethlisberger wasn't himself -- gutting out a painful high-ankle sprain and playing the entire game. But, as I said, the 49ers were minus their top defensive playmaker and lost wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tackle Joe Staley during the evening. Yet they never sputtered, hammering the Steelers again and again in a victory that was as important to San Francisco as it was deflating to Pittsburgh.

With the victory, the 49ers remain alive for one of two first-round byes in the NFC playoffs. All they must do now is beat Seattle next weekend, and they're in. OK, so they still have to finish off St. Louis in the season finale, but have you seen the Rams lately?

If, however, they had lost Monday, they probably cede the second bye to the New Orleans Saints, also 11-3, and tell me anyone wants to go to the Superdome to play those guys ... because they don't. The Saints haven't lost there all season.

But that's one more thing about San Francisco. It travels well. It won four games in the Eastern Time Zone, including come-from-behind defeats of Philadelphia, Detroit and Cincinnati. So they lost in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. That was on a short week where they had to travel cross-country -- such a competitive disadvantage that, over the past 15 years, none of the 13 clubs asked to travel 1,500 miles to play Thursday night games have won.

So I don't pay much attention to that game. I pay a lot more to what happened Monday.

The 49ers lost two of their previous three -- including a defeat by Arizona -- and had sputtered on offense. They couldn't produce touchdowns in the red zone, their star running back was banged up and their quarterback was reduced to a piñata -- sacked 18 times in the previous three games.

So Pittsburgh shows up and what happens? Alex Smith isn't sacked, Frank Gore looks like himself and the 49ers score two TDs in a runaway.

"I think we need to acknowledge that that was 49er football tonight," losing coach Mike Tomlin said. "We played the game on their terms in the manner of which they play when they play winning football."

That's a warning, folks. The 49ers didn't just beat a Steelers team desperate to win. They shredded it. And they did it short-handed. OK, OK, so Roethlisberger was handicapped. But I'm not sure a healthy Roethlisberger could've won this game.

"We showed everybody tonight that we're a good football team," defensive lineman Ray McDonald said, "as well as a Super Bowl contender."

I'll second that.

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