49ers Clinch NFC West

22:18 Sun 04 Dec 2011. Updated: 10:15 06 Dec 2011
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I’ve been a 49ers fan since about 1986, just before their late 80s period of dominance. They were already an excellent team, and although I didn’t become a Jerry Rice fan until later, it’s probably not a coincidence that I liked their offensive style so much shortly after Rice’s arrival in 1985. I was in Ireland at the time, and watched them have success after success from afar. From 1983 to 1998, they had 16 consecutive winning seasons.

In 1999, I moved to California, and coincidentally the 49ers went 4–12; Steve Young (another favorite player of mine) also retired that year.

They went 6–10 in the 2000 season, then rebounded with two winning seasons in 2001 and 2002, winning the division in 2002. But after losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional playoff, the organization fired coach Steve Mariucci (a move I didn’t like at the time and which certainly looks like a mistake in retrospect). Since then, they’ve been a terrible team.

I fully expected them to be a terrible team this year, too. I thought Jim Harbaugh might be a good coach, but given that they didn’t make any other significant personnel moves and also considering the fact that the off-season was shortened due to the labor dispute, I thought it’d be next year before he could make a difference.

I was wrong. They secured a winning record a couple of weeks ago, and today clinched their first NFC West title in nine years when they blanked the St. Louis Rams 26–0. It’s not just that the rest of the NFC West is awful—although it is—they’re actually good, with wins over the Giants, the Lions, and the Bengals, and a very close loss to the Ravens.

Unlike the great 49er teams of the 80s and 90s, they’re not dominant on offense. But their defense has been absolutely excellent, particularly against the run. Through 12 games this season, they have allowed no rushing touchdowns, making them the team since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 to go 12 games in a single season without giving up a running touchdown[1]. They also haven’t allowed any opposing running back to gain 100 yards in 34 games[2], and unsurprisingly lead the league in rush defense, giving up an average of 71.8 yards per game.

They have a legitimate chance to tie or beat the record for fewest rushing touchdowns conceded in a 16-game season (four), and perhaps even in any NFL season (two). Their remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the league in terms of rushing yards—although Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has been extremely good the last few games and may represent the biggest threat to the 49er streak.

They’ve given up the fewest points in the league so far, averaging 13.4 per game, and of the 15 touchdowns they’ve allowed so far, all 15 were through the air—not only have they allowed no rushing touchdowns, but they’ve also allowed no special teams touchdowns and haven’t given up any turnovers resulting in immediate points of their opponents (although one could argue that last stat is as much a factor of luck as anything else).

By any measure, that’s a dominant defense, and the rushing offense has also been effective. In today’s game Frank Gore became San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher, and overall the 49ers are 7th in rushing yardage this year. The running game has allowed Alex Smith to play with less pressure, and to put up career-best numbers so far in terms of completion percentage, TD–INT ratio, and NFL passer rating.

They’ve clinched the division, and are one game ahead of the New Orleans Saints for a first-round bye. The 49ers’ remaining opponents are:

  • Arizona (5–7).
  • Pittsburgh (9–3).
  • Seattle (5–7).
  • St. Louis (2–10).

Obviously, the Steelers game is likely to be the toughest. The Steelers will likely still be playing for their own divisional crown at that point, and are a seasoned, dangerous team. Still, the 49ers have a shot to win it, and should probably go 3–1 to finish 13–3 and secure the second seed in the NFC.

Harbaugh has done a phenomenal job, and I can’t think of anyone else in the NFL who should be considered for coach of the year honors.

The team is still suspect in terms of passing offense, but the defense and the running game give them the ability to hang around in games versus just about anyone. It’s been a while since a team has won a Super Bowl that way—the Ravens did it in 2001 with a defense that was among the best of all time—but the 49ers have a shot. They’re in the top five teams in the NFL right now, with Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New England. They’ll drop a little if they lose to Pittsburgh, but are probably still in the top 10. The odds are good that Candlestick Park will host a playoff game for the first time in years, and it’s entirely possible that San Francisco will end up in Green Bay in January trying for a trip to the Super Bowl.

For now, however, they can congratulate themselves on their first division title in nine years, and on an excellent turnaround from last year’s 6–10 season.

[1] The Chicago Bears hold the record of 15 consecutive games over two seasons without giving up a rushing touchdown.

[2] The Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles have streaks of 50 or more.

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