With Gore carrying, 49ers can grind out victories, win again in NFC West

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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SAN FRANCISCO -- People who say the NFL is a quarterback-driven league apparently haven't seen the NFC West. It's a quarterback-challenged division driven by running backs and defenses, and that makes it a problem to overcome defending champion San Francisco.

The reason: Nobody in the West has a better running back or a better defense, and if you don't believe me, then rewind the videotape to San Francisco's 13-6 defeat of Seattle.

It wasn't the 49ers' Alex Smith or Seattle's Russell Wilson who determined the outcome; it was Frank Gore and the San Francisco defense, and welcome to the not-so-wild NFC West -- a division where the best quarterback is Smith ... or maybe Sam Bradford ... but where quarterbacks don't determine what happens as much as someone like Gore.

And what he did Thursday was shred the league's second-ranked run defense for 131 yards -- or 44 more than any of Seattle's opponents had this season.

You heard me. The Seahawks hadn't allowed more than 87 yards rushing in any game. The 49ers had 175, with most of them by a running back who produced their three longest gains of the evening -- 37, 20 and 18 yards -- and that was enough to re-establish San Francisco as the Best in the West.

"I just tell myself when Coach calls my number," Gore said, "that I've got to be ready. I just got in rhythm, and once I get in rhythm I feel I can't be stopped."

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He's not alone.

Apparently, his offensive linemen feel it, too. In Seattle, they knew what they were up against, which is why guard Alex Boone called it "a lunchbox game." The Seahawks are big, physical and tough to beat up front. So the challenge was on, and the 49ers embraced it.

"It was going to come down to who wants it more," Boone said. "There was a war mentality, and we said, 'Let's not let them beat us at our own game.' We wanted to pound the rock because that's what we do best."

Where they ran 10 times in the first half, they ran 22 in the second. Where Gore had 39 yards rushing in the first two quarters, he had 92 in the second. Where the 49ers trailed 6-3 at halftime, they won by throwing a second-half shutout.

I think you get the idea. Gore plus defense equals division superiority.

Granted, the victory wasn't exactly a Van Gogh, but it never is when you play in a division where old-school football prevails. And this was a contest decided by a second half that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh called "the most physical 30 minutes of football I have seen our team play."

I don't know about that. What I do know is that San Francisco absolutely handled an opponent that might be its closest (only?) competition in the NFC West, and it handled them the old-fashioned way.

"All week long," tackle Joe Staley said, "we wanted [coaches] to put the game on our shoulders. It was a tall order, but we knew we had to run the ball to win the game."

And they did, with Gore demonstrating to a national audience why he's one of the game's best and most underrated running backs. Not only did he lead the team in rushing; he led it in receiving, too, with five catches for 51 yards ... or 182 yards in offense. Compare that to Seattle's total of 251, and maybe now you understand why the 49ers are the team to beat again in the NFC West.

"We always pound the ball with Frank," tight end Delanie Walker said. "Sometimes we go away from it in different games, but when it's a tough game like this one we try to get Frank the ball because he's great at finding holes."

Seattle does the same thing with running back Marshawn Lynch, who often refers to himself as being in a "beast mode" for games.

"So if Lynch is beast mode," Walker was asked, what does that make Gore?

"Gorilla mode," he said.

The Seahawks understand, and so should the rest of the NFC West. Of course, it's not as if Gore's exactly a secret. He's one of the game's best all-purpose backs, breaking Joe Perry's franchise record for career rushing yards, ranking third among San Francisco's leaders in career scrimmage yards and having the most 100-yard rushing games (32) of anyone since 2005.

He's also someone who wasn't in on the 49ers' last series, with Gore later saying he suffered a back injury when he caught a second-quarter pass and was hit from behind.

The 49ers can't afford to move forward without the guy, and they shouldn't have to. Gore insisted he was "all right" as he talked to reporters afterward, saying only that he felt occasional discomfort when he bent over.

But it's not his anguish that's the issue today. It's Seattle's. The Seahawks know what it takes to win the NFC West, and San Francisco has it -- maybe now and for the rest of the season.

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